Chrissy Cassilio made an unusual proposal to the Erie County Council following the arrival of asylum seekers.
The Republican nominee for the Erie County Executive said he wants legislators to have a public comment period on whether to officially declare Erie County a “sanctuary county” and then a vote. If passed, the bill would allow immigrants and asylum seekers from New York City to reside only in districts whose representatives voted in favor of the proposal.
If that fails, Erie County executive Mark Polonkerts, Mr. Casirio’s Democratic opponent in the November election, should “do his job and start fighting New York City on relocation efforts.”
“This is a self-inflicted problem, the result of career politicians mistaking bad policy for good politics,” Casilio said at a news conference near a hotel where migrants stay on Friday. “It’s time for the community to have a say.”
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At least 10 asylum seekers walked across the hotel parking lot and gathered at the edge of the press conference as Mr. Cassilio spoke. They watched and chatted quietly to each other for a few minutes, then went back to the hotel in silence.
Cassilio’s proposal came a month after the first buses of immigrants from New York City arrived in Erie County.
About 450 asylum seekers have arrived in Erie County from New York City since then, said a spokeswoman for the resettlement agency Jericho Road Community Health Center. A recent bus carries about 150 migrants, most of them families with children.
Erie County is so far the only western New York county to accept asylum seekers from New York City.
Also, Erie County is seen as a model of efficiency compared to processing and resettling asylum seekers in other counties across the state, a statewide immigration advocate recently told county legislators.
County leaders say the busload of immigrants coming into the area does not represent a crisis for the county, which is used to handling refugees and asylum seekers. But the incoming waves are still nasty.
Jericho Road, the agency contracted to find refuge for migrants, is working to catch up with asylum seekers who have not yet gone through the resettlement process.
Cassilio criticized Polonkaerts for not being sufficiently transparent about the process and whether tax dollars are actually being used as part of the effort. Some legislators agree.
“We don’t have the answers. We don’t know the limits. We don’t know the costs,” Casilio said. “I am not in favor of being left in the dark and ignorant of how our tax dollars are spent.”
No county taxpayer money is being used to help immigrants being transferred to Erie County, according to county officials. New York City is responsible for paying for all transportation and housing for immigrants here.
County officials say they usually only know “a few hours in advance” when New York City prepares to transport immigrants, and all immigrants must come to western New York voluntarily.
Polonkers spokesman Dan Meyer said, “When Erie County officials are notified of migrants being transported out of New York City, we urge them to immediately notify the county legislature and that New York City officials also notify municipal leaders in the jurisdictions where immigrants are being held.” “Despite the fact that the government has not implemented any programs, it has responded as best it can to all questions raised on this subject.”
“Why do we allow this to happen?”
So far, Erie County lawmakers have not accepted Mr. Casilio’s proposal for a “sanctuary county” ballot. But Republicans have expressed concern over the fact that some hotels that host immigrants are behind on taxes.
Two of the three hotels currently hosting asylum seekers are in arrears. One of them is behind nearly $72,000 in taxes, and the other is just under $4,800, according to county records.
In response, Rep. Frank Todaro (R-Lancaster) urged Congress to support a resolution calling on the county auditor to ensure that hotels that receive public funds for immigrant accommodation do not profit from delinquent taxes.
“Why do we allow something like this to happen?” said Totaro.
Rep. Jeanne Vinal (D, Amherst) accused Todaro of identifying companies participating in the asylum seeker shelter program. She succeeded in sending the matter to the committee.
Rep. Timothy Myers (Cheektowaga Democrat) supported the resolution. Both he and Todaro are representatives of Cheektowaga, immigrants sheltered at a local hotel.
Meyer confirmed Polonkertz’s support for the resolution, adding that county officials “have always supported the Comptroller’s efforts to collect the hotel lodging tax promptly and appropriately.”
Cassilio’s faction is working under the surface
On Friday, Casilio gave a press conference for the first time in almost two months, but the 36-year-old first-time candidate said it wasn’t because he was away from campaigning.
“We’ve had multiple events every night,” Cassilio said. “I have focused my time on meeting as many Erie County residents as possible.
Cassilio criticized Polonkaerts for not declaring a state of emergency barring asylum seekers from arriving in Erie County, a criticism he repeated Friday. Seven other counties in western New York declared similar states of emergency in May, and Polonkers criticized those orders as “morally rebellious.”
But while Casilio says his focus is on immigration “for now,” he said his campaign is also about more effective use of tax dollars, more efficient social services and post-pandemic economic recovery.
“It’s about changing priorities and generally changing the culture of county governments back to serving their residents,” Casilio said. “Because we haven’t got it yet.”