County discusses asylum seekers amid community pressure

Cortland County Legislature. (Photo provided by Cortland County)

Cortland County legislators and department heads explained their reasoning behind the emergency order regarding a potential influx of asylum seekers in the county at a special meeting Monday.

Legislators and department heads noted they do not think they have the capacity to provide accommodations, access to services, and eventual long-term prosperity to asylum seekers who legislators claim will eventually be bussed by New York City leaders to Cortland County. 

That lack of preparation, legislators said, prompted the county to issue a state of emergency declaration and order on May 12, prohibiting hotels, motels, and property owners in the county from providing shelter to “migrants or asylum seekers.” 

People in the county who violate the emergency order are subject to a $2,000 fine per person they help by providing shelter. Those found in violation of the emergency order will also be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

The county’s emergency order is in effect through June 10.

Legislature chair Kevin Fitch (R-LD-8) said he has not heard from New York City officials regarding when and if any asylum seekers will make it to Cortland County. The fears from county leaders in upstate New York stem from the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy instituted by the administration of former President Donald Trump that denied entry into the country to asylum seekers.

“We saw firsthand what happened in 2020 with the pandemic when you don't have time to prepare,” Fitch said. “We are again without a plan in addressing what may come to Cortland County.”

Fitch noted the county needed time to assess if it had the resources to provide social services, mental health support, housing, medical and child protective services to aid asylum seekers. He added the county does not have the certified translators or help in schools to deal with a potential influx of people.

He also noted the county also thought of the potential arrival of asylum seekers interactions with police.

“We have to make sure the law enforcement have the tools, background information, documentation, and certifications, and we also have to make sure that law enforcement can still do the protection of Cortland County at the same time,” Fitch said. “We also have to take a look at employment. How many jobs are vacant for migrant workers? What is the waiting period that we have to have before we can even employ? And then what kind of jobs are there?”

County department heads also spoke at the meeting, detailing the shortcomings and deficiencies in their ability to provide services to existing residents of the county. They warned that adding more requests for services from asylum seekers would make it even more difficult to do their job.

Social services

Kristen Monroe, Cortland County Commissioner of Social Services, said the county already faces a struggle trying to provide shelter to county residents.

“In 2022, we had a record year, with the number of households that came in requesting emergency shelter. There were 378 unduplicated households and many came back multiple times,” Monroe said. “That was 52% more than the number of households we assisted in 2021, when it was 249 households. At this time, 2023 is projected to double those numbers, both in households served and in costs.”

Monroe added the department already projects to go overboard on its projected budget for 2023 by $800,000.

“We just don’t have places,” she noted. “If we could determine a safe place to house an influx of folks, then the next issue would be staff resources.

Monroe said her workers do not have the sufficient knowledge on how the immigration system works to be able to assist potential asylum seekers coming in.

Sharon MacDougall, the director of community services at the County Mental Health Department, said the county would also likely try to provide other mental health services to asylum seekers coming into the county.

“Any asylum seekers are very likely to have behavioral health needs, including mental health, substance use disorder and those with intellectual developmental disabilities,” she said.

MacDougall said her department, as well as the open positions at the nonprofit organizations who work in the behavioral health space in the county, are missing anywhere from 20-40% of their staff at the moment.

“I don’t want to risk my current staff stress, but we will certainly respond any way we can,” she said.

Potential language barrier

Legislators and department heads noted the county is not prepared to offer services in a language that the projected arrival of asylum seekers, potentially from Central America, can understand.

“Certified language translators are a requirement for us,” MacDougall said. “We can't just bring anyone to translate. They have to be certified language translators.”

Fitch told The Cortland Voice after the meeting the county is looking to hire certified translators to help asylum seekers in the short term. The legislature chair added he would consider employees who can speak Spanish in Cortland County an asset.

“There hasn’t been a move to look for those workers because there hasn’t been a huge need,” he said. “I think one of the things that we really have to take a look at is being able to put that as part of a job description.”

Multilingual certification is important, Fitch said, as it limits legal liability

“The county has been sued before because the person translating was not certified,” he said.

Work in Cortland County

There are currently 73 job vacancies in county government, Fitch said Monday. The county has implemented pay studies, slight increases to the wage structure, and even provided modern benefits like a hybrid office schedule. Despite that, the county seems unable to attract the right candidates for the roles. 

When asked about the potential for asylum seekers to eventually fill roles for the county, Fitch showed skepticism. He had previously noted asylum seekers have to wait months to receive work authorization. 

Asylum seekers, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, can apply for a work permit after 150 have passed from their filing for asylum.

“The only thing that I can say about our vacancy list is that they’re very specific and specialized roles,” Fitch said. “We also have the civil service exam and they have to meet the minimum education requirements.”

Fitch said he would support a resolution to lobby Cortland’s representatives at the federal level, including U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-NY-19) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), to ask the federal government to expedite work authorization to asylum seekers.

“I don’t know if this month (will) be so easy to do,” he said. “But a resolution to go to the federal government, absolutely. I don’t think Congressman Molinaro would ever say no to that. He would support it.”

Regarding other instances of people moving to Cortland County, including New York City residents moving to the county during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Fitch said those circumstances are different from the ones the county faces with this potential influx of asylum seekers.

“With the southern border, we don't have any say, we don't have a choice,” he said. “This is going to be this is going to be common. In order for us to be inclusive, having asylum seekers come here, we have to be able to communicate.”

Issues with the emergency order

Legislative Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD-2), the order does not start the discussion from a place that shows the county wants to help asylum seekers.

“One of the key questions I keep asking is for us to start from a place of let’s do something,” he said. “Let's find an open opportunity. Let's open our hearts as this community has done many times over the generations, for different groups who have looked for opportunities. Asylum is a right that we all have both under U.S, law and international law.”

Instead, Harbin said, the order makes the county move toward “zero” toward “no.”

“I’m not saying we have to accept all the tens of thousands of asylum seekers that New York City has accepted,” he said. “But we can find something somewhere, we can find opportunities so that it's not just an influx, an amorphous number that scares us into immediate danger.”

A word from a few community members

Ute Ritz-Deutch, a professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland, said she feels the United States has a “legal obligation” to welcome asylum seekers. Ritz-Deutsch referred to excerpts of international law that call for countries to grant the right to seek asylum. 

In the U.S., immigration law allows asylum seekers to remain in the country while their claim for protection is pending. Ritz-Deutch’s mother was a refugee in Europe, which she said informs her views on the importance of being humanitarian and standing in solidarity with immigrants.

“It makes no sense to me that Cortland County is trying to criminalize people who are willing to help asylum seekers,” she said. “That I find very badly problematic.”

Danielle Wimbish, a resident of Cortland County who attended the Monday meeting, said the concerns brought up by department heads and politicians at the meeting were alarming.

Danielle Wimbish, a resident of Cortland, shows her support for asylum seekers outside of Monday's Cortland County Committee of the Whole meeting. (Photo provided by Timothy A. Bennett, Owner & Publisher of The Cortland Voice).

“I do know that there have been many issues that have been brought up to the legislature,” she said. “However, it’s shocking to see that nothing has been done or tried to even be planned as a result of the already known lack of support and funding.”