Interviews & Profiles

City government veterans return to help the City Council with the migrant influx

A Q&A with New Arrivals Strategy Team Advisory Board Member Lilliam Barrios-Paoli.

Migrants get on a bus outside Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Migrants get on a bus outside Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

After nearly two years of fighting to hold the Adams administration accountable as it has grappled with the influx of migrants, the New York City Council has launched a new team to come up with better ways to help new arrivals integrate into society.

First announced by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams during her State of the City Address last month, the New Arrivals Strategy Team is composed of city government veterans, service providers, nonprofit leaders, funders, City Council staff and immigrant New Yorkers. Over the coming months, the group will examine how elected officials and nonprofits have responded to the migrant influx while also coming up with policy recommendations to address new arrivals’ immediate and long-term needs.

The City Council announced the composition and structure of the team Tuesday morning. One of those individuals is Lilliam Barrios-Paoli who has served in city government for several decades. She was deputy mayor for health and human services under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, was chair of NYC Health + Hospitals and served as the commissioner of five different agencies under four New York City mayors.

Now, fresh into her retirement, Barrios-Paoli is eager to serve on the strategy team’s seven-member board, which is tasked with providing guidance on how to implement the team’s proposals.

P.V. Anantharam, a 30-year veteran of city government, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, 27-year city government veteran Larian Angelo, Columbia University professor Ester Fuchs, Community Service Society President and CEO David Jones and Fund for the City of New York President Lisette Nieves have also been named board members.

City & State spoke with Barrios-Paoli about how she came to be involved in the team, how things will be structured, how it will fill the gaps in the Adams administration’s response to the ongoing influx of new arrivals and the need for long-term solutions to help migrants settle in communities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Many, if not all, advisory board members have a breadth of experience serving in city government under previous administrations. What has it been like watching the Adams administration’s response to the ongoing arrival of our newest New Yorkers? What gaps have you observed in the city’s response and how will this team improve things?

This is a unique problem. I think all of us have dealt with homelessness and dealt with immigrants, but never to the degree and the size of this crisis. Resettling that many people in such a short period of time when you already have a homeless population that was quite high is a very complicated problem. It was a very, very difficult situation for the administration to try to do this. I think they’ve done a very good job in terms of crisis management. They have managed to open countless numbers of shelters to meet the problem. The issue is you meet the immediate crisis, but then what do you do to make sure that these people get integrated into the fabric of the community at large, to become part of society, contribute and create a new life for them and their children, if they have them?

You know, you watch this happen, you have watched it unfold and it’s always very easy to come up with: “Oh, I’d have done it differently.” Playing Monday morning quarterback is wonderful, but when the rubber meets the road it’s a very different reality. I certainly know that having been in the different positions that I was in and having been deputy mayor.

I think the beauty of what we’re trying to do with the New Arrivals Strategy Team is we have the time and the space to think outside of the crisis a little bit. And to begin to think about the long-range plan? How do we manage to provide services that they need right away in terms of mental health, in terms of health, in terms of housing – those kinds of things? How do we then plan to help them become part contributing to society so that they can become New Yorkers like the rest of us?

How did you come to be involved in the team? 

Meghan Lynch, senior adviser to the City Council speaker, gave me a call and described what they wanted to achieve. I gave it some thought. I’m retired, and happily so, but I think it’s a civic duty to contribute to the issue. That was why I wanted to help in any way I could.

This is a unique opportunity for us to try to help in a constructive way. There are people in the firing line who have to meet the daily crisis. Some of us don’t have to do that, so we have the luxury and the will of thinking more long term.

A lot of different organizations and people are involved in the team – it seems like the initiative has all the elements needed to put forward some very thoughtful solutions. Sometimes in big teams though, it can be challenging to coordinate and effectively utilize everyone’s voices. How will things be structured to avoid this?

People are divided into specialty areas, if you will, and I think the idea behind it is that the solution to problems are usually found in the places where the problems originated. Community is crucial, right? You’re going to go to the education community, you’re going to go to the legal community, and ask them what they think is the best way to approach solving these series of issues. This isn’t a one issue kind of thing.

My sense is there will be a lot of gathering of information. That’s where the staff of the City Council comes in. They’re very capable, hardworking young people. They will put together the best thinking of the different ideas, groups, and then it’s up to the advisory committee to use our experience to figure out what might work. Many things have been tried in the past. Some of us know why they didn’t work. The idea is if we tried this in 1987, and it didn’t work, why didn’t it work and how can we move it around to see if it would work now. Just because it didn’t work before, doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work now.

I think we have enough people with enough experience in the group – from a policy point of view, from a fiscal point of view, from a political point of view – that we can come up with some really good, strong suggestions that hopefully, the administration, the federal government, city government and state government can use to guide sort of a roadmap on how to move ahead.

Why for all those various levels of government?

If we make it just the city, we are dooming it from the beginning. A lot of the solutions can be found at the state and the federal level, not only funding, but restrictions that have to be lifted, laws that may need to be changed – those kinds of things. We have to think broadly. The city has limited powers in certain areas to provide asylum to the people who need it, to provide legal working papers, to provide funding for more housing, etc. If we don’t think more globally, in terms of every level of government that can help, we’re not going to get far.

Have you had any conversations as an advisory board yet? Do you have a timeline for when you expect to issue the first report?

No, we’re trying to schedule the first meeting. Hopefully, it will happen soon. We’re working with the schedule now of everybody, and I think it’ll happen sometime in late April or the beginning of May.

As for the reports, I don’t think we know yet, but I don’t think these kinds of things should be prolonged too much because it just goes nowhere. I think we’ll try to do it in as short a period of time as we can, but we have to do it thoughtfully. We’re not in a rush to come up with things that may not work in the end.

What issues do you feel are more important to be addressed?

There’s the short-term needs that people have and then the more long-term needs in terms of their integration into the fabric of society.

There’s not just one immigrant group that is homogeneous. There’s many different kinds of immigrants that are coming from different cultural groups, from different ethnic groups, from different countries – all with different problems. You have families, you have singles, you have people with mental health issues, you have people who are profoundly traumatized just from the trip that they undertook.

Coming from countries like Venezuela or Colombia, traveling through Central America and Mexico is a horrible experience, I am sure. I’m sure many of them were brutalized, particularly the women. There’s a lot of trauma that has to be dealt with if people are going to begin a new life. Those immediate needs – you know, the children and their educational needs, their health needs – all of that needs to be taken care of, and I think the Adams administration is trying to do that. Hopefully we can help them find new ways to do so in community and with the help of community.

Then you have to think about what is the cultural adaptation that people need. As an immigrant myself – I came many, many years ago – you go through cultural shock. I mean that’s the best way to describe it. You’re coming from a different country, a different cultural experience, a different language and you have to sort of learn the new ways. Those new ways sometimes clash with the concept you have on how to conduct yourself in society. All of that needs to be brought up and needs to be dealt with. (Editor’s note: A City Council spokesperson said the current plan is to have the language-access cohort meet first.)

Anything else you’d like to add?

The most important thing is that this is a collaborative effort. No one is the leader. There’s a lot of people, and we will work together as a group. I think it’s also important that we’re looking to help and we’re looking to be positive. We’re not looking to criticize anything. Everyone is doing the best they can. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it’s really tough when you’re on the front lines.