Hochul is under pressure to help with migrants. What about the state Legislature?

New York legislative leaders have been relatively quiet about the crisis.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ chamber passed legislation to provide legal representation to undocumented people that has yet to pass in the Assembly.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ chamber passed legislation to provide legal representation to undocumented people that has yet to pass in the Assembly. NYS Senate Media Services

Gov. Kathy Hochul has gotten significant flak for how the state has responded to the migrant crisis in New York City. The issue came to a head on Friday when a state court said that the state government has a responsibility to help the city adhere to its right to shelter laws. But the state Legislature has taken a back seat to the governor, and it doesn’t appear lawmakers are planning a return to Albany to find legislative solutions to any of the problems the city is facing. 

A landmark 1979 court case paved the way to the right to shelter in New York City as a right protected by the state’s constitution. The case was settled in 1981 with a consent decree that proactively established the right to shelter in New York City under the state constitution, though advocates for the homeless assert the ruling should apply statewide. Now, a state court is calling on the state government to step up more to ensure that right is met amid the migrant crisis.

With the state Legislature not set to return to Albany until January, legislative leaders have been relatively quiet on the migrant crisis that continues to grow in New York City, even as Mayor Eric Adams has made increasingly dire pleas for aid to both the state and federal government. Adams has found himself embroiled in lawsuits with counties across the state over sending migrants to other parts of New York, and Hochul has received criticism for her lack of involvement in mediating those disputes and facilitating statewide cooperation in responding to the crisis.

The state Legislature hasn’t done much more, though. “We’re not asking for (state Senate Majority Leader) Andrea Stewart-Cousins or for (Assembly Speaker) Carl Heastie to hold daily presentations with powerpoints,” Theodore Moore, vice president of policy and programs at the New York Immigration Coalition, told City & State. “But, you know, we would love to hear something from them and actually have a plan to solve some of these situations with migrants with legislation.” Legislative leaders, along with the governor, allocated over $1 billion as part of this year’s budget to help New York City deal with the crisis, but Moore said that lawmakers haven’t acted on other bills that could provide assistance. 

One of those bills is the Access to Representation Act, which would establish a right to an attorney in immigration court. Right now, one only has the right to a lawyer in criminal cases, and in New York City, in housing cases. Another is the Coverage for All Act, which would direct the state to seek the necessary federal approval to expand publicly subsidized health care to undocumented immigrants. That legislation passed in the state Senate, but not in the Assembly. “What I would suggest is that they actually came back and finish the job from last session,” Moore said. “So that would be number one, providing all of the wraparound services that quite frankly asylum-seekers, migrants and all immigrants in New York need.”

One legislative staffer, speaking independently of their boss about what lawmakers could do, suggested that aside from the handful of bills like Coverage for All and Access for All, the Legislature is limited in what it can do outside of the budget process. The state holds no sway over immigration policies, which are under the purview of the federal government, and cannot increase agency budgets outside the budget. The staffer said the biggest thing lawmakers can do now is to use their bully pulpit and other institutional influences at their disposal to sway action from others in a better position. Other action could be taken, but that would require leaders to call a special session. 

In a special session, lawmakers could also take action being asked of Hochul through statute rather than executive order. Moore said that the Legislature could pass a law making it clear that the city Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, a rental voucher program, can be used for undocumented immigrants. He said lawmakers could also create a new, statewide voucher program that includes undocumented immigrants instead of waiting to see if Hochul might do something similar through executive action. Any legislation would still require the governor’s signature.

Legislative leaders could also create mandates in statutes directing state agencies to identify unused facilities and properties to house migrants, something that Hochul has done so far in a piecemeal fashion. City leaders are expected to ask her administration to identify more state-run sites to house migrants and to provide the resources needed to make them suitable for shelter as part of the recent court order. Moore said that a resolution from the Legislature asserting New York’s status as a sanctuary state would go a long way to combat resistance from individual local leaders to housing migrants in their communities. But he said that this all could have been done already without a special session even needed. “All of these elected officials knew that this was a situation… and they had ample time to come up with solutions and pass legislation if they chose to,” Moore said.

Right now, a special session doesn’t appear to be in the cards. A spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins pointed to funding the state provided in the last budget and said “that conversation will continue,” but provided no specifics about what other steps the state Senate could take to address the crisis, nor commented on whether leaders are discussing a return to Albany. “Discussions are ongoing on what type of action we can take,” spokesperson Mike Murphy said in an email to City & State. A spokesperson for Heastie did return a request for comment. Hochul said on Friday that she plans to ask the Legislature for more money to address the crisis in the next state budget.