The Migrant Bus-lift Volunteers Need City Support and Recognition — Center for New York City Affairs


For the past two months, I have been a regular twice-a -week volunteer at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, as more than 17,000 immigrants and asylum seekers bused to New York from Texas have arrived with no plan in place for what happens next.  

What I found was the most extraordinary volunteer operation I have seen in many decades of work. A group called Grannies Respond stepped in to take this on, operating at the terminal under the name TLC-NYC. They had people signing up for shifts throughout the day, starting at 6 am. They negotiated a space at Port Authority and their volunteers would greet arriving asylum seekers with an enthusiastic welcome.  

Within two hours or so of each bus arriving on highly erratic schedules the volunteers would distribute water and donated food; would give people access to a clothing table and outfit them with at least one or two changes of clothing; and would interview each person. 

The interviewing is critical, because they were able to identify arrivals who had friends and relatives in New York City or elsewhere in the US. Then they contacted these friends and relatives, often made great connections, and actually bought bus tickets to send people to family in other states. Their quick interventions helped people who had traveled through six or seven countries and been thrown on buses by the Texas governor get access to a place to go while saving the City a shelter bed and costs. 

For most of the last few months that I have been volunteering, City government agencies have also been on hand, occasionally providing useful information and work, but mostly doing as speedy a “welcome” as possible. The result: A barebones processing of arrivals, then loading them back on buses to various City shelters where we know that there is serious overcrowding, questions about meeting standard of care, and an insufficient support system. 

The City personnel on site not only don’t fully collaborate with the substantial volunteer presence, but often actually work at cross-purposes with them, rushing people to buses without more than the clothes on their backs, moving to a shelter someone who can instead be given a bus ticket to a cousin ready to welcome them. 

Now we are at a new crossroads. The flow of arrivals has abated because of new and inhospitable Federal policies toward Venezuelans fleeing oppression. So, while fewer buses are arriving, the immigrants who have come in through the terminal in the last several months now come back to the Port Authority because they have learned that TLC will provide a meal and clothing, help with legal, medical, and employment planning – in short, treat them like people with obvious needs instead of letting them languish in shelters. 

And the volunteers continue to be amazing. They help people with their immediate needs, have donated more clothing than it is possible to imagine, and are now signing up volunteers to sort the clothing and help individuals find what they need. This is critical for people who have come here with nothing and are about to experience a New York winter. 

What troubles me is that the City continues to take credit for being welcoming but does not recognize or appreciate what volunteers are doing, and does not assign a coordinator to work with these amazing people who are organized, efficient, and actually doing much of the welcoming. They have been asked to assign a coordinator and create a shared effort which could be fully extended to the people in the shelters, but they have not responded. 

Having been in City government, I understand what a daunting challenge this is. I  agree with Gustavo Rivera that we desperately need the mayor to work with the City Council to develop longer-term plans for affordable housing.   

There’s a further, vital role for the City: To persuade the Federal government to waive the absurd provision in the law that none of these asylum seekers can legally apply for work for 150 days!!!  

These are people dying to work, eager to make money and look for places outside of the shelters to live. They are in New York when there are worker shortages in construction and at restaurants, where there have been requests for this new pool of laborers.   

The City should also rally private sector leaders to make the case to the Federal government that encouraging employment is a critical next step that will save us benefit money, add to our economy, and decrease the likelihood of people taking jobs illegally, with the all the dangers attending that. 

There’s a need for the City to do more and also to share credit and collaborate with the hundreds of volunteers who are helping manage this crisis.   

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