ALBANY, N.Y. — New York City officials want to ease pressure on overcrowded homeless shelters by housing migrants in a federal jail that once held mobsters, terrorists and Wall Street swindlers before being shut down after Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide.
The proposal, suggested in an Aug. 9 letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, came as New York struggles to handle the estimated 100,000 migrants who have arrived in the city since last year after crossing the southern U.S. border.
The city is legally obligated to find shelter for anyone needing it. With homeless shelters full, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has taken over hotels, put cots in recreational centers and school gyms and created temporary housing in huge tents.
The letter, written by a senior counsel for the city’s law department, identifies several other sites in which migrants could potentially be housed, including the defunct Metropolitan Correctional Center, which closed in 2021.
That shutdown came after the detention center, whose prisoners have included Mafia don John Gotti, associates of Osama bin Laden and the Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, came under new scrutiny because of squalid conditions and security lapses exposed following Epstein’s death.
Lawyers had long complained that the jail was filthy, infested with bugs and rodents, and plagued by water and sewage leaks so bad they had led to structural issues.
The letter didn’t make clear whether the city had actually approached the federal Bureau of Prisons about getting access to the jail as residential housing for migrants. As asylum seekers, the migrants are not prisoners and are mostly in the U.S. legally while their asylum applications are pending, leaving them generally free to travel.
In a statement, the federal Bureau of Prisons said “While we decline to comment concerning governmental correspondence, we can provide; MCC New York is closed, at least temporarily, and long-term plans for MCC New York have not been finalized.”
At least one advocacy group assailed the idea of housing migrants at the jail.
“Mayor Adams likes to say that all options are on the table when it comes to housing asylum seekers, but certain places should most definitely be off the table,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The Metropolitan Correctional Center was a notoriously decrepit jail, and is not a suitable place to support people trying to build a new life in a new country.”
The influx of migrants to the city has created some tension between the Hochul and Adams administrations. Lawyers for the two Democrats have sparred in court filings over how best to confront an issue that carries financial, political and humanitarian implications.
In a letter this week, an attorney representing Hochul sought to reject allegations that the state had not responded to the migrant influx in a substantial way, detailing steps the governor has taken while accusing the city of failing to accept state offers of assistance.
“The City has not made timely requests for regulatory changes, has not always promptly shared necessary information with the State, has not implemented programs in a timely manner, and has not consulted the State before taking certain actions,” the letter said.
Hochul’s attorney also noted the state has set aside $1.5 billion for the city to assist migrants and has advanced the city $250 million for the effort but said the city has only submitted reimbursement documents for just $138 million.
Avi Small, a spokesman for Hochul, said in a statement Thursday that “Governor Hochul is grateful to Mayor Adams and his team for their work to address this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Governor Hochul has deployed unprecedented resources to support the City’s efforts and will continue working closely with them to provide aid and support.”
The city, in its own filing, has suggested Hochul use executive orders or litigation to secure housing for migrants in upstate New York or to consider trying to get neighboring states to accept migrants.
Lawyers for the city are also requesting to use state-owned properties such as the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center or State University of New York dormitories to house new arrivals, in addition to requesting the federal government allow them to use federal sites such as the Metropolitan Correctional Center jail and Fort Dix.
Adams’ office did not immediately return an emailed request for comment Thursday.