Interviews & Profiles

City Council goes to D.C. (not because the mayor told them to)

A Q&A with Council Member Justin Brannan on getting more federal funding for asylum-seekers and advocating for expedited work authorizations.

Members of the New York City Council, including Justin Brannan, far right, met with New York congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.

Members of the New York City Council, including Justin Brannan, far right, met with New York congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. John McCarten/New York City Council Media Unit

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, when confronted with criticism of his handling of the asylum-seeker crisis, has often asked why other elected officials aren’t doing more to call for federal funds and assistance. In one of the more blunt examples to date, Adams made this pointed plea to city Comptroller Brad Lander on Thursday: “Go to Washington, D.C., Brad, and get us our fair share.”

So when a delegation of New York City Council members traveled to the nation’s capital this past week to meet with federal officials on a range of policy issues, including asylum-seekers, it could be read as an answer to Adams’ not-so-subtle requests.

But Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the Finance Committee and one of the members who went to Washington, denied that the trip had to do with the mayor’s calls. “Yeah, that’s not why we went,” Brannan told City & State. The council’s trip had been in the works for months, he said, and while asylum-seekers were a top priority, council members also discussed other issues, including health and public housing. Over the course of the day, council members met with members of New York’s congressional delegation, White House officials, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Small Business Administration. City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams was also accompanied by other council leaders, including Council Members Diana Ayala, Keith Powers and Selvena Brooks-Powers.

City & State caught up with Brannan a day after the visit to discuss the latest allocation of federal emergency funds for asylum-seekers, the council’s advocacy for expedited work authorizations and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you call the City Council delegation’s visit to Washington, D.C., a success?

Absolutely. A very positive, productive day of meetings. We packed in like a week’s worth of meetings in one day. It was a pretty intense, robust schedule we had. Truly, it was a very, very positive day. I think one of the main takeaways I had was how many folks in the Senate, in Congress, federal folks, White House folks, couldn’t remember the last time there was a council delegation, which is pretty fascinating. It’s something we’ve actually been planning for a while to push our federal priorities. And this just felt like the best time to do it. 

Just a day after your visit, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries announced that New York City would get $104.6 million from the latest pot of FEMA emergency funds to help cover the costs of providing shelter and services to asylum-seekers. That’s more than Mayor Eric Adams’ administration predicted the city would get just a week ago. Did the council delegation have anything to do with unlocking those funds?

I take full credit. (Editor’s note: He said jokingly.) I mean, look, obviously I’d be lying if I said that the asylee situation wasn’t top priority yesterday. But that wasn’t the only thing that we went up there to meet about. I had a meeting with (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) where we spoke about maternal health and we spoke about reproductive rights. Some other members met with (the U.S. Small Business Administration). So we really were up there to discuss our full federal priorities. But obviously, the asylum-seekers were top of mind and FEMA money as well as work authorization, which is really the holy grail that we’re after here. We need to set these folks up so that they can support themselves, and that they can get a job and that they can take advantage of why they came here. So even having unlimited money or unlimited space, that’s really not the goal, right? The goal is to try to get these folks out of shelter, and to get people working. So the FEMA money, obviously we were heartened to see that. The discussions that we had been having with our partners in Washington were always a bit more optimistic than what we were hearing from some other corners, in that there was an acknowledgement that New York City was accepting the lion’s share of asylees so New York City should be the recipient of the lion’s share of the next tranche of money. This is something we’ll continue to partner with them on. The expedited work authorizations, though, is really the priority there.

On the FEMA money – did you have a sense yesterday that it was going to be that larger allocation? I mean, really, do you feel like your visit there made a difference, or was that already underway by the time of the council delegation visit?

I think the meetings were very positive. I’ll say that.

On fast tracking work permits, it seems like there’s been some confusion or passing of the buck between the Biden administration and Congress. New York officials have called on the administration to take action to expedite work authorization, but the White House has said it’s something that Congress needs to do. Did you get a clear answer on what actually needs to happen to expedite work authorization – and did you detect any interest in doing so from the officials you spoke to?

Certainly, Leader Jeffries and Sen. Schumer, they get it. The entire New York congressional delegation – the Democrats, at least – they get it. And they understand that work authorization for those seeking asylum could make a real difference in folks’ ability to become self-sufficient and to contribute to our city and our economy, as immigrants have since New York City was New York City. And they also understand the unfortunate political climate that we’re in. Nothing that is related to immigration is easy to do with such a hostile House. So there was some discussion around strategy about how to get that done – talking about the humanitarian parole and Temporary Protected Status. We’re in a political climate now that makes things that should be sort of common sense require an added level of political strategy. So some of the conversations we had were about that.

You mentioned meetings on health issues, small businesses and I know the council delegation was also seeking resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Did you walk away with any commitments on some of these other issues you were advocating for?

NYCHA came up a whole bunch, public housing obviously came up a whole bunch. The speaker talked a bit about her proposal that she made in the State of the City. We spoke to HUD about that. HHS, we commiserated a bit on the fact that we didn’t think we were going to have to relitigate reproductive health care in 2023. We talked about sort of the limitations of what cities can do, and how the cities also have to kind of be that brick wall when there's tumult in Washington. But the meeting at HUD was really good. Secretary (Marcia) Fudge was amazing. Being a former mayor, she gets it. Basically offering us all the support we need, to work together, to access different pots of money that may not be as obvious to us as others. I think that was helpful, sort of a promise to work together in accessing some of those more arcane pots and funding streams is definitely helpful.

What are some of those funding streams?

There were a couple things that they schooled us on that we didn’t even know about. In funding with housing, that’s not surprising, but it was good to hear. (Editor’s note: Brannan later mentioned the Section 108 Loan Guarantee Program as one of the programs discussed at the HUD meeting.)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said before that critics of his handling of the asylum-seeker crisis should go to Washington, D.C., to join his calls for federal help and funds. Do you feel like you’ve addressed that point from him now?

Yeah, that’s not why we went. We’ve been planning this trip for a couple of months. We had to get through budget hearings, and then we had to build the agenda and get everyone on the same page. I think by the time the mayor was lamenting that no one else had gone, we had already been planning it. So that’s not why we went. But look, the challenges that are before us really require an all hands on deck approach. So it makes sense that the lawmaking body for the city of New York should be meeting with and engaging with our partners in Washington.