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Meet the New Yorkers Welcoming Asylum Seekers Bused to City After Hostile Reception at U.S. Border

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As thousands of asylum seekers continue to arrive on buses in New York, we speak with a man from Venezuela about his journey, and two New Yorkers who have been helping since August to welcome them with dignity and ensure they get the housing, food and other assistance they need. “The system here in New York City is not created for this type of community, which is the migrants that are arriving,” says former asylum seeker, Adama Bah. “It is our job as New Yorkers to be able to welcome them in this city that is a so-called sanctuary city,” adds Power Malu, with the group Artists, Athletes and Activists. Bah and Malu also discuss how their work is being repeated nationwide.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, two Democracy Now! producers went to Port Authority, the bus terminal near Times Square in Manhattan, to meet the New Yorkers who are welcoming thousands of asylum seekers who began arriving in August from the southern U.S. border. Many said they were pressured to get on the buses and misled about where they were being sent. This is Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC.

ILZE THIELMANN: A bus arrived from Texas. This is one of the buses that have been sent by Governor Abbott since August. And we had a lot of families on this bus, a lot of little kids. And we handed out some teddy bears and toys and food and water. And now we’re interviewing the families and finding out what they need. We’re going to give them some clothing, and we’re going to get them to where they need to go.

There was a woman who had a neck brace, and we immediately got her to the medical triage tent. There’s a little medical center set up inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The first bus we greeted, there was a young lady — well, a 12-year-old girl, who had diabetes, who had not had insulin for four days. And one of my volunteers is a former nurse, and she quickly identified the problem and got her to the hospital. But we have had that at least a couple of times, where someone was diabetic and hadn’t had insulin, people who have not had their proper medications. They had their medications taken from them.

We’ve had people who are completely dehydrated. We had a little boy who had a seizure because he had not had his proper medications. It’s just that we’ve seen all kinds of terrible results from people being mistreated at the border and then being put on a bus for a 36-, 40-hour journey without proper food, without proper water.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilze Thielmann, speaking outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the center of Manhattan. She and many other New Yorkers have also opened their homes to the newly arrived asylum seekers who would otherwise face living in New York’s already overwhelmed shelter system or in the streets.

On Thursday, Democracy Now!’s María Taracena spoke to a Venezuelan asylum seeker who arrived in New York in September, is now staying with Thielmann. He was apprehended at the Texas-Mexico border and detained for two days. He said he was put on a bus to Washington, D.C., then another to New York City. He asked to remain anonymous for safety.

VENEZUELAN ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] I left due to the economic situation in my country. You cannot make much money there. I have my daughters, my mother, and I have to support them. That’s why I came to the United States. It took me about two months to make it here. I was homeless a lot of the time. I went through the Darién jungle. I was in there for seven days eating only bread. I got out of there and made it to Panama, then Costa Rica, then Nicaragua. It was complicated. We were always running.

I made it to Guatemala, and then we crossed into Mexico. Mexico was a nightmare. They attack Venezuelans a lot — the police, immigration officials. When I made it to the state of Monterrey, I didn’t have money anymore. I had nothing. We searched for a train that’s known as “The Beast.” The train took us all the way to Piedras Negras, near the U.S.-Mexico border. We hid and ran so that immigration agents wouldn’t arrest us. We saw Mexican immigration in the Rïo Bravo River, so we waited for them to pass on their boats. Then we decided to jump in the river. The water completely covered me. I was being pulled by the river but swam and made it to the other side. That’s when we turned ourselves in to the U.S. immigration police, and they apprehended us.

I came to the United States without any money. All I had was faith in making it here. I would pray to God to take care of me. A lot of the people I came here with, who did so much to come here, died. The river took them, and they drowned. So when I made it, the first thing I said was, “Thank God.” I was blessed in New York. I didn’t know anyone here. The woman who I’m staying with has supported me so much. The shelters didn’t have room, so she brought us here to her apartment. She gave us food. She gifted me a bicycle. She gave us clothing. I am so thankful to her.

I hope I have the opportunity to stay here and work. And if there is the opportunity to bring family with me, one of my daughters, I will do it. That’s why we’re here, to fight for our families and our children.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the Biden administration started expelling Venezuelan asylum seekers to Mexico under an expansion of the Trump-era, pandemic-era Title 42 policy that’s blocked at least 2 million migrants from applying for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

For more, we’re joined by two people who are working with Ilze Thielmann and others in New York and around the United States to welcome the thousands of asylum seekers who continue to come and those already here who need support as their cases wind through the U.S. immigration courts. One of our guests, Adama Bah, first joined us on Democracy Now! in 2010, when she was 22 years old and had been placed on the no-fly list even though she had been granted asylum from Guinea, where she faced female genital mutilation. This is part of our interview then.

ADAMA BAH: I came to this country when I was 2 years old with my mother. And when I was 16, I was detained for immigration reasons. I didn’t know I was illegal, so that’s when I found out. After three years of battling, I got an asylum in 2007. I wore an ankle bracelet for three-and-a-half years.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain why you got the political asylum, what it was you faced in getting it.

ADAMA BAH: Well, I got the political asylum, because in my country, they circumcise women. So…

AMY GOODMAN: And you were afraid, if you went back —

ADAMA BAH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — this would happen to you, as it did to all the women members of your family?

ADAMA BAH: All the women in my family have gotten it done, even my mother.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you wear an ankle bracelet?

ADAMA BAH: They wanted to track my immigration. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Adama Bah in 2010. She joins us now as a community organizer, also author of her own biography, Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness). Also with us is Power Malu, a community organizer who runs the group Artists, Athletes and Activists. They both have been working closely with Ilze Thielmann and others to assist thousands of newly arriving asylum seekers to New York.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Adama Bah, it’s just remarkable what you yourself went through. You have now just gotten your citizenship?

ADAMA BAH: Yes, I just became an American citizen a year ago.

AMY GOODMAN: But here you are, rather than sort of getting away from the trauma of what you left behind, working to help other people who, like you, are desperate to come to this country. Talk about what you’ve been doing here and what you face with the thousands of people, in this case in New York, just coming here.

ADAMA BAH: So, because of my experience, it was very important for me to be on the ground and help advocate. The system here in New York City is not created for this type of community, which is the migrants that are arriving. So we’re at Port Authority every single day welcoming them and helping them navigate into the shelter system. Once they’re in the shelter system, we are also helping them with resources, social services. We’re also at the airports and other bus terminals. I think one of the things that we definitely want to highlight, Port Authority is not the only route these migrants are coming from. They’re coming from airports, other bus terminals around New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about where those buses are coming from. We see you at Port Authority greeting the asylum seekers. What are they telling you? And what about these journeys? And where do they think they’re coming to?

ADAMA BAH: So, the buses coming at Port Authority is coming from Texas. The ones that are not coming from Port Authority are coming from other states, so Arizona, Ohio, Indiana. Those are just some of the few states that they’re coming from. But the migrants that are coming specifically from Texas, or the Abbott buses, we call them, they are just forced into the buses. They are waking up at 1:00 in the morning and told to get on these buses, and they’re not sure where they’re going. You have some of them who know that they’re going to New York and a lot of them who don’t have any idea. So, as soon as they arrive in New York City, my colleague here, Power, the first thing he tells them: “You’re in New York City, at Port Authority, in Manhattan.” It’s the best way to identify where they are so there’s no confusion. And briefly we tell them what the next step is.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Power Malu, what is the next step? And how did you get involved with your group, Artists, Athletes and Activists, and being there as a greeter and a person who orients these asylum seekers? Why this is so important to you?

POWER MALU: So, I’m born and raised in the Lower East Side. I’m a Nuyorican, so my mom and dad were born in Puerto Rico. I was born here in New York, but I still consider myself an immigrant. I think it’s very important for people to realize that if you weren’t born here 500 years ago, you’re an immigrant. If you’re not a native to this country, you’re an immigrant. And this country was built off the backs of immigrants, and I just want to make that clear.

When they come to New York City, this is the first place that we actually have an opportunity to right the wrongs. Right? When they first step foot into the United States, they’re mistreated. They’re put in these cold cells, these cold air-conditioned spaces with just wearing T-shirts. So they arrive to New York sick. They arrive to New York with anxiety levels through the roof. It’s up to us. It’s our job as New Yorkers to be able to welcome them in this city, that is a so-called sanctuary city, with the love and the care and the dignity that they deserve.

So, when we get on the bus, the first thing we do tell them is that they are in New York City, and although they may see police officers, and now because we have the National Guard stationed there they may see people in uniform, military uniform, they are not to be afraid. They are free. They are free, and they are welcomed here in New York City, and we’re going to do our best to advocate for them.

We try to find out if they have family members here in New York or family members on the way, because one of the main things that we like to do is reunite families, because at the border, they have been separated. There is no rhyme or reason. We have reunited so many families. And I’m talking about thousands of families that have been separated, where the mom and the dad don’t see each other for weeks or months at a time. The children — there’s two daughters that were separated from the mom and dad and their younger siblings. One was sent to Ontario, California. The other one was sent to San Diego, California. We worked diligently to do the research to try to get them together and reunite them here in New York City. And that is one of the main things that we pride ourselves in, is having a conversation with them, because for the first time they’re actually having someone listen to them, someone that actually cares and wants to know what are their needs.

And so, the follow-up, it takes into consideration us sharing our phone number with them, and then it’s spread throughout the community. And people come to us for all types of help, like whether it’s questions about their immigration or they’re coming because they need some clothing or some food. Any type of resources that are supposed to be shared with them and that they’re not getting, they come to us. They come back to the Port Authority.

So, yes, we are receiving hundreds and hundreds of people at the Port Authority. Now it’s up to like 20,000-plus that are in New York City. But the follow-up means that they’re not getting the resources that they deserve, so they trust this place that they first were welcomed, and then they share that within their community, and we try our best to connect with grassroots organizations who are the ones that are doing the work.

And we want to be clear with that, because there’s a lot of miscommunication or misinformation that the city is doing so much for these migrants and they are well-off. And that is not the case. We are advocating for them every single day, and we have to be on the ground fighting for them. And they know this. That is why they come back to us and say, “Hey, we’ve been at this hotel for two weeks, and we still haven’t enrolled our child in school,” or “We still haven’t gotten any type of resources. We’re getting cold food,” or “We’re not getting food at the time, because we don’t know when the food is being served.” So there’s a language barrier.

And it’s up to us to continue to advocate for these people and let the city know, and people that really care, that it’s the grassroots organizations that need the support, because we’re not getting the support that we need to be able to make this sustainable. And that’s all we want to be able to do, continue to help these people, because they deserve to be helped and treated as human beings, not as political pawns as they’ve been treated for these past several months that they’ve been trying to come here to the city.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Power, it’s so moving to see you and Adama and others greeting, laying hands on, having signs that welcome people to New York. We see a woman in a neck brace. There was a child — right? — who didn’t have insulin, who was a diabetic. She was 4 years old. Adama Bah, can you talk specifically about Black asylum seekers and if they’re treated differently than others?

ADAMA BAH: Oh, yeah. There’s over 10,000 Black migrants in New York right now. Black migrants are coming the same route as our South American brothers and sisters. But once they arrive in Texas, they are then transported to another detention center, and they are not released until their asylum cases is proven. So they have something called positive or negative. So, if their asylum case is positive, that means that they have a credible fear of not returning to their country, and then they are released.

But they’re not just released just like that. The majority of the Black migrants that we’re working with have a bond. They have the highest bond. The highest I’ve personally seen was $6,000. But these bonds go higher than $6,000. Black migrants have to wear an ankle bracelet. Our Hispanic counterparts are just being released with a cellphone, are not wearing an ankle bracelet. So, Black migrants are really discriminated, and the city doesn’t really have the resources or the language access for them. There has really never been a system created for them.

And so, my job now, and the job of my colleagues and of organizers that I work with, is advocating for them, advocating for language access, cultural needs, because these Black migrants have already been through a lot in the system, being discriminated, and then when they arrive to New York, they’re being discriminated even more.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of Haitians, thousands of Haitians fleeing to this country, the latest news, NBC reporting the Biden administration considering expanding operations at the U.S. military base and prison at Guantánamo Bay to hold Haitians who are caught at sea trying to reach the United States. In the '90s, I remember well the United States using Guantánamo to hold as many as 12,000 Haitians who had fled the U.S.-backed coup in Haiti against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. So, you have that situation, and I don't know what you’ve heard about that, and then, in New York, Randall’s Island being used as a major site to hold people, particularly single men, I think up to 500 or 1,000, but only a few have gone there.

ADAMA BAH: Yeah, that is actually correct. I heard about the Haitians being held at Gitmo, and I was horrified, because we know the traumas and the things that have happened there. The men that are currently at Randall’s, we do follow up with them, and we ask them how they’re doing. They do tell us that they’re being taken care of very well. But a lot of the issues that they’re facing is there’s no social services for them, so they’re coming back and asking us, “What support is there for us?”

POWER MALU: Yeah, I also want to touch base on that, because the center, or the HERRC, at Randall’s Island, when it was opened, it was made for it to be temporary. And now we are the ones that are actually sending a lot of people, because people are coming by plane, and so the buses have decreased.

Another thing I want to touch on is the fact that there’s been African migrants that were now put into the Randall’s Island HERRC, and that was done by Seydi and Adama Bah, different organizations working together with them. And I want to highlight that and allow Adama to speak about what just occurred this past Sunday, because there’s a different story that’s being told, and I want to be able to use this time to share that. So, Adama, you should talk about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Adama?

ADAMA BAH: Seydi is this incredible woman. Her organization is called ABISA. She has actually been the main point person who has been paying the bond for these Black migrants. Once she pays the bond for these Black migrants, they are literally just dropped off the streets of Louisiana, Atlanta, Chicago. And then, when they’re dropped off, they’re contacting Seydi to be ticketed to New York City. They heard that there’s an opportunity in New York City, that they are safe as Black migrants in New York City.

So, when they arrive in New York City, they contact me. They contact organizers that they know that are on the ground. And a lot — thousands of Black migrants have been sleeping in mosques around the country. And it’s unfortunate conditions. They’re very horrific conditions. And when I saw these conditions, I flagged it to the city to bring awareness to our struggle. And with that opportunity, we took the chance to put them in HERRCs in Randall’s Island. This past Sunday we took about 45 African men and sent them to the HERRC. It was a successful mission. It was successful because these men are now in warm beds. They are safe. They’re being fed. But still, they need more support. They need more resources.

AMY GOODMAN: I also understand, on the issue of Haitians being held near Guantánamo, that the UNHCR has called on the United States to refrain from forced returns of Haitians. Finally, I want to ask you both about what you think the city should be doing that they’re not doing now. That’s New York City. And then take that national, what you’re doing, Adama and Power, as a model for what should be done around the country. Are people reaching out to you?

ADAMA BAH: I think one of the most important things is that the city needs to be honest about what services and resources they need help with. New Yorkers, we’re amazing. We’re incredible. We’re willing to step up and say, “Hey, I’m a doctor, I’m a nurse, I’m a lawyer. I can take some time to help.” And most importantly, to work with grassroots that are on the ground. We know the community very well. Power and I are connected to about 38 states. We’re just contacting other orgs that are on the ground trying to find solutions and resources. So I want to highlight all the organizations that have been on the ground. But it’s also very important to fund us, to give us funding to continue the work that we’re doing.

POWER MALU: Yeah, Adama makes a great point, because if people think that everything is under control, then they don’t even see the grassroots organizations and the work that we’re doing. And we’re the backbone and the foundation of what’s happening right now, and we’re the advocates that are not being noticed or not being recognized. So people don’t see a reason to donate to us, and they don’t feel the [inaudible] think, “Hey, the city has it under control.”

So we want to be clear that it is the grassroots organizations. For example, I’ll reach out to EVLovesNYC for food, and they’ve been feeding thousands of migrants that are arriving and the ones that are in the shelter system, because we bring food to them. So these are organizations that are on shoestring budgets, but they are actually stepping up. And we want to be clear that when we reach out to other organizations across the country, they are doing the same thing.

And if we can do it as grassroots organizations, so can mammoth organizations that have bigger budgets or that have connections to philanthropy, and they can actually help us to continue this work. And all they have to do is reach out. We have the model, we have the solutions, because we are actually on the ground creating this network. And all we do need is the support. We don’t need the silos being built. This is not a competition.

AMY GOODMAN: Power Malu, community organizer who runs the group Artists, Athletes and Activists. Adama Bah, community organizer, author of Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness). Adama is a refugee from Guinea, has lived in the United States since she was 2 years old. This is what mutual aid looks like. And a very special thanks to our Democracy Now! producers María Taracena and Tey-Marie Astudillo, Renée Feltz and Robby Karran.

Coming up, The Intercept has revealed the Department of Homeland Security is expanding efforts to work with private tech companies and police online speech. Stay with us. Back in less than 30 seconds.

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