Asylum-Seekers Enter Divided Country

Rahim Lebrami and Isselko Sidi both fled Mauritania and are staying at the Crossroads Hotel in the Town of Newburgh. Photo by L. Sparks

Rahim Lebrami and Isselko Sidi both fled Mauritania and are staying at the Crossroads Hotel in the Town of Newburgh. (Photo by L. Sparks)

Court bars more migrants at Newburgh hotels

Rahim Lebrami relaxed on Tuesday (May 16) at a small table on an expanse of grass at the Crossroads Hotel in the Town of Newburgh. 

Other immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. filled the remaining chairs, or stood. A second group rested in a seating area near the hotel entrance. 

More than a month ago, Lebrami left his native Mauritania in northwest Africa for Turkey, the first stop in a continent-hopping journey that took 25 days by plane, boat, car and on foot, he said. The journey from his resource-rich but impoverished homeland went through Spain and El Salvador, and then Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, he said. 

“It was a hard journey,” said Lebrami. He thought of giving up, but dreamed of reaching a “country of law … a country of values and traditions and a country of freedom of speech in which I can speak my mind without being threatened or handicapped.” 

But he also finds himself in a country divided over recent immigrants. 

Orange County legislators and activist groups such as For the Many and Beacon Climate Action Now are spearheading donation drives and arranging other support for the nearly 200 immigrants bused last week from New York City to the 124-room Crossroads and another hotel in the Town of Newburgh, a 150-room Ramada on Route 300. 

On another front, however, Orange County and the Town of Newburgh are suing both hotels, and decrying New York Mayor Eric Adams’ decision to send migrants to the hotels for up to four months. The city is struggling to shelter more than 60,000 new asylum-seekers, some of them ordered bused from Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott. 

activists at hotel

Activists greeted migrants on May 11 as they arrived at a Newburgh hotel. (Photo by Rene Mejia)

Sandra Sciortino, the Orange County judge hearing the county and town’s lawsuits, on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order allowing the 110 immigrants at the Crossroads and 76 at the Ramada to remain as the cases proceed, but barring New York City from sending more people to either hotel. 

Her order prevented New York City from sending seven buses with more asylum seekers that same day, said Steve Neuhaus, Orange County’s executive. 

“New York City should not be establishing a homeless shelter outside of its borders in Orange County,” said Neuhaus, who on May 8 declared a state of emergency after learning that the city planned to move people to Orange and Rockland counties. 

He ordered hotels to reject migrants from the city, and warned of “potentially thousands of persons” being sent to the county, with “no reason to believe that these migrants or asylum-seekers will leave” once the city stops paying for their housing. 

“We should not have to bear the burden of the immigration crisis that the federal government and Mayor Adams created,” said Neuhaus on Tuesday. He is also suing New York City. 

Ashok Batt, the owner of Crossroads, denied in a court filing on Tuesday one of the county and the town’s main assertions: that the city’s use of his hotel violates Newburgh’s code and the certificate of occupancy issued by the town. 

Newburgh cites the town’s definition of a hotel as offering “transient lodging,” and state building code, which defines transient as a stay not more than 30 days. 

Siding with the town “would require the hotel to evict these 110 asylum refugees, with no place for them to secure shelter and essential services,” said Batt in a court filing. “Rather than embrace compassion and basic human decency, the town has opted for racism, fear and hatred.” 

The New York Civil Liberties Union made the same claim in a federal lawsuit it filed May 11 against Neuhaus and Ed Day, the executive of Rockland County, after a judge barred a hotel in Orangeburg from accepting migrants. 

The lawsuit cites the Rockland executive’s claim that “we have child rapists, we have criminals, we have MS-13 [gang members]” among newly arrived immigrants. Orange County Legislator Genesis Ramos said on May 10 that Neuhaus’ order encouraged a “xenophobic, racist and dehumanizing tone.”

What Elected Officials Said

State Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon and the Town of Newburgh:
Throughout this process, Mayor [Eric] Adams has given us little advance notice and made virtually no effort to coordinate with local officials. The mayor’s office said they expected to receive significant support from local volunteer groups. This is not a plan; it is a hope and a prayer. They also failed to provide an answer when I asked who would be responsible if some of the migrants left the Newburgh area.

The Town of Newburgh is not New York City. There is little within walking distance of these motels and public transportation is scant. Mayor Adams’ decision to send these migrants from New York City to be housed in Orange County and Rockland County was ill-conceived, hastily executed and a shocking abdication of responsibility.

Kevin Byrne, the Putnam County executive, in a letter to Adams:
While I appreciated your virtual call with county and local leaders earlier today [May 11], it was clearly a reactionary step to overwhelming opposition in the face of what I would describe as an underhanded move.

In your call, you mentioned that you’re asking for assistance, and you don’t want to force this move on anyone, but clearly that was not true a few weeks ago. You sought to house these individuals by having the city contract with various hotels and other temporary residency facilities without first giving adequate notice to Orange or Rockland counties.

The president’s inaction to date is completely unacceptable, especially given that he was just in the region yesterday to fundraise and failed to address this tinderbox of a situation that New Yorkers and many of our fellow Americans are facing. Our country has never faced a situation such as this. The migrant crisis we find ourselves in is inherently different from other situations in recent memory, like the Syrian refugee crisis and the Afghanistan retreat debacle. Obviously, this is a significantly larger number of individuals we’re dealing with, but also in those other two cases, asylum applicants were held in a different country while their applications were evaluated.

You should know that our Sheriff’s Office has been and will continue to be committed to working and communicating with federal law enforcement officials, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to ensure the safety of these individuals and our communities. It is worth reiterating that while Putnam County is a caring and welcoming county, it continues to support the rule of law and is not a “sanctuary county.”

William F.X. O’Neil, the Dutchess County executive, in a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer:
Dutchess County is already facing housing issues for our existing residents. … There is no capacity for an influx of hundreds of additional people seeking emergency/transitional housing. Additionally, Dutchess’ health and social services systems remain strained, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The expectation of counties providing wrap-around support services to hundreds of additional people without resources or funding is ludicrous.

Simply housing people en masse in local hotels is not a solution — it creates far more problems than it solves, overburdening local communities that do not have the necessary infrastructure or resources to meet people’s needs. Without connections or support in the community, these transplanted individuals are at great risk for exploitation, trafficking or criminal involvement. This is not a humane or logical solution.

This crisis must be addressed, and it must be addressed at the federal level. Once again, the Biden administration’s lack of planning has put communities throughout New York state in this perilous position.

Ozzy Albra, supervisor of the Town of Fishkill, where the board voted May 12 to take “civil and/or criminal” action against any hotel that accepts migrants from New York City:
The hearts of the Town of Fishkill go out to all individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. I myself am a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, one of whom was granted asylum here. However, the duty to process and assimilate these individuals and families in an orderly manner is the responsibility of the federal government, and not local or regional entities.

On Friday, Dutchess County joined the list of other counties declaring states of emergency amid reports that New York officials contacted hotels in the Town of Poughkeepsie in their search for lodging.

Executive William F.X. O’Neil said the county is responding to the “imminent, forced relocation of migrants and/or asylum seekers to Dutchess County” and seeking to “ensure law and order throughout our County, as well as provide for the safety of our nearly 300,000 residents.” 

Dutchess officials are also considering legal options against New York City hotels, motels and short-term lodging businesses whose property is used for “an emergency shelter, homeless shelter or long-term overnight dormitory,” said O’Neil.

Isselko Sidi, who is also from Mauritania and staying at the Crossroads, said some drivers have lobbed insults and yelled “Why are you here?” while passing the hotel. One person stopped by seeking farm laborers from among the migrants, who include people from Costa Rica, Colombia and Senegal, he said. 

“We just want to earn a decent living and send money to our families,” he said. “What did we do for them not to welcome us here? We’re leaving our homeland in order to settle here and we think that America is the best state ever.” 

Along with housing, New York City’s program is funding on-site case managers, breakfast, lunch and a hot dinner; legal assistance; laundry service every other week; telehealth appointments; and hygiene kits. Security guards sit at each hotel’s entrance. 

Members of Beacon Climate Action Now planned to drop off donated items on Thursday (May 18) for migrants staying at the Ramada. The items include men’s clothing and underwear, shoes and toiletries, said Veekas Ashoka, one of BCAN’s founders. 

Two barbers, Lucky Longo in Beacon and Eileen Sheppard in Newburgh, agreed to cut hair for free, and several residents who speak French volunteered to translate, he said. 

“Beacon is doing our part,” said Ashoka. “I’m grateful and appreciative of our neighbors on this side of the river, stepping up and seeing the value in welcoming people who need a safe place to live.”

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