Shawna: “Shocked” by others’ “SWAT Team” Talk

by Robert Lynch, June 1, 2023

What a difference a county line makes. Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black Thursday morning doubled down in defending her welcoming stance toward “Asylum Seekers,” her preferred term to describe those who might migrate here from the southern U.S. Border following the lifting of federal Title 42 immigration restrictions last month. 

“You will be welcomed as our new neighbors.” Shawna Black, May 16th. She still feels that way.

But in a 26-minute Zoom meeting described as a “briefing call regarding the potential arrival of asylum seekers in our area,” a conference attended by invited County officials, municipal leaders, and community advocates, Black leveled harsh criticism at leaders in other counties—including those adjacent to her own—who’ve declared States of Emergency explicitly to keep unwanted southern migrants out.

“We are continually shocked by news (from) neighboring counties, and what’s coming out of their mouths,” Black told the online gathering of about four dozen.  “We will have SWAT Teams to greet them,” she quoted one unnamed official from another county as having said as to how his or her government would receive any migrants who might be transported there.

The alleged “SWAT Team” remark could not immediately be verified or attributed.

Shawna Black’s Thursday encouragement of border migrants to relocate to Tompkins County in search of asylum underscored earlier remarks she’d made at a May 16th meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature.   “Those who seek asylum in Tompkins County will be welcomed as our new neighbors,” Chair Black then stated.  Legislator applause followed her statement.

None of those invited to the Thursday County-sponsored Zoom meeting disagreed with Black’s assessment.  Nor did they question Black’s criticism of those elsewhere who prefer to take a tougher stance.

Casey Verderosa of the resettlement group “Ithaca Welcomes Refugees” termed Black’s approach to the migrant issue “level-headed.” 

“This community cares about humans,” Aly Evans of Foodnet Meals on Wheels told the online gathering.  “People need food.”

Tioga, Cortland, Schuyler, and Chemung Counties have each declared States of Emergency.  The Cortland County declaration continues through June 11.  Tioga County’s latest extension of the emergency rules runs through next Sunday, June 4th.

“Although we welcome individuals and families into our communities, we want them to come prepared, able to sustain themselves by having the ability to work, have the proper immunizations and a support system,” Tioga County Legislature Chair Martha Sauerbrey said in a statement Tuesday as she issued her fourth, short-term extension of her original May 11th emergency order.

“This situation threatens the public safety,” Cortland County Legislature Chair Kevin Fitch wrote May 12th when issuing his county’s Emergency Declaration. 

 “The County of Cortland is experiencing a housing crisis,” Fitch wrote in defense of his order.  “Cortland County is not capable of receiving or sustaining any number of migrants and/or asylum seekers,” Fitch stated.

While Tompkins County’s leadership and community advocates seek to welcome those transported here seeking refuge, the busloads of outsiders that locals first expected have yet to arrive. 

“The State is in uncharted waters here and is evolving,” Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes told the Thursday briefing.  Holmes reported that neither has New York State nor New York City signaled when, or if, it may transport asylum seekers here.

Based on an update she received Wednesday from Governor Kathy Hochul, Holmes did report that the number of New York City arrivals from the southern border has declined in recent days.  Holmes said officials credit the Biden Administrations post-Title 42 immigration policies for having stemmed the flow of migrants following Title 42’s lifting May 11th.

The migrant transfers upstate have been at the direction of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, much to the disappointment—and anger—of those in charge of Upstate’s more conservative counties.

Only about 300 migrants have been transported upstate so far, Holmes reported, based on her Wednesday briefing by the Governor.  The cities of Yonkers, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Albany, and the town of Colonie (near Albany) have served as the only communities of destination so far, Holmes stated.  She said Mayor Adams is considering temporarily housing some New York City arrivals in a hangar at JFK Airport.

“New York State has to own this.” Legislator Rich John (pictured at a previous meeting)

Governor Hochul wants to “tone down the rhetoric and stop the finger-pointing,” Holmes quoted the Governor as having stated during their Wednesday conference.  Governor Hochul said she may employ available New York State facilities to quarter some transferees, if necessary.  But Holmes was told that leaders of counties where such facilities are located will be contacted ahead of any relocation.

Holmes was also assured that New York City will bear the costs incurred by anyone transported upstate.

“They will be coming here,” Tompkins County Legislator Rich John predicted as he added his remarks to the Thursday online briefing.  But John also voiced disappointment that State Government has largely abdicated its leadership role and “seems to be saying that this is a New York City issue.”

“New York State has to own this,” John emphasized.  “There has to be a better way to address this.”

County Administrator Holmes indicated that another community briefing—the third in its series—could be held “a week or two out” as more becomes known.