Grace Bonilla on United Way of NYC’s emergency fund for asylum-seekers

The CEO in a Q&A discusses the organization’s work with the recent influx of migrants who’ve arrived in the five boroughs.

Asylum-seekers arriving in New York City from Texas. Diane Bondareff

Asylum-seekers arriving in New York City from Texas. Diane Bondareff Mayoral Photo Office

An estimated 17,000 asylum-seekers have been bussed to New York City since the spring, the majority of them housed in homeless shelters and hotels. As Mayor Eric Adams declared a State of Emergency after the city’s shelter system reached record levels, nonprofits and community-based organizations have quickly responded to aid migrants in all areas of their transition. These include providing basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing to both individuals and families. While 75% of the influx of migrants are anticipated to enter the city’s shelter system, with 30% being families, the strain on the city’s resources is indisputable. 

Through close partnerships with the New York Immigration Coalition and New York City Public Schools’ Project Open Arms, United Way of New York City has helped bridge gaps in funding and resources. Since the onset of the migrant crisis, the organization has used Lyft to transport asylum-seekers and directed funding to pantries, soup kitchens and emergency food providers. 

In light of the urgency of the current situation, United Way also launched an Emergency Assistance and Community Assistance Fund in collaboration with long-time partners Trinity Church Wall Street Philanthropies, in an effort to ensure that all asylum-seekers have access to basic needs. No Kid Hungry New York also contributed to the fund, which United Way will use to provide grants to organizations at the local community level.

New York Nonprofit Media caught up with Grace Bonilla, who joined United Way as CEO in May,  about the fund and what it has been like leading the 85-year-old organization. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Regarding the fund, what was the selection process/criteria for the community organizations who received the grants?  

The first round of funding has been dispersed to four direct service community organizations working closely with the newly arrived asylum-seekers. We worked with our on-the-ground, highly connected community and government partners to select four community-based organizations that were working closely to provide urgently needed support to asylum-seekers. Together, we were able to assess the most urgent needs of Team TLC NYC (an affiliate of Grannies Respond), Artists-Athletes-Activists, Gambian Youth Organization, and El Puente to disburse funds to help them take care of these newest New Yorkers in a dignified way. As UWNYC raises more funds, we will continue to partner with the City of New York as well as others to select community organizations for additional grants.  

What distinguishes the selected community-based organizations from other organizations in their treatment of asylum-seekers? How are they qualified to properly meet the needs of these individuals? The selected organizations have been working around the clock to assist newly arrived asylum-seekers on extremely tight budgets. They are on the front lines, greeting asylum-seekers at the Port Authority and ensuring they have food, clothes, care, and guidance. They have been doing this urgent work for months and have deep knowledge of the needs and barriers.  

In addition to the NYIC, Trinity Church and No Kid Hungry, who else does UWNYC plan to partner with for future contributions to the fund?  

We plan to continue to partner with the City of New York, especially the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and New York City Public School’s Project Open Arms. We also will continue to partner with our committed board of directors, corporate and philanthropic partners, and amazing community-based organizations 

How long do you think this emergency situation will last for? Does UWNYC plan to give pastoral care to asylum-seekers beyond basic emergency support?  

We aren’t really sure how long this emergency situation will last. But we are certain that we will work to support asylum-seekers for as long as they are here in New York City and for as long as they continue to arrive in our city. Regardless of the circumstances around their arrival, we believe that asylum-seekers should be treated with dignity and that their needs deserve to be met. While we are not a direct support organization, we do work closely with our community-based organization partners who are providing care to assess most emergent needs, as they arise, and discern how to fill them as quickly as possible. Our fund enables us to do this. 

As UWNYC’s new CEO, what are your plans of leadership, especially as the organization recovers from challenges faced during COVID-19? 

Covid-19 taught us that our city is still facing so many inequities and disparities for its residents, despite being one of the most forward and progressive cities in the world. That means that our organization needs to be at the forefront of providing solutions to right this wrong. We’ve made strides by adapting our programmatic focuses to address equity and expanding our areas of focus so that we’re taking a holistic approach to meeting all New Yorkers’ needs towards equitable and thriving economic mobility. What you can expect from me is that under my leadership United Way will always look to be a value-add to any new space we walk into while remaining at the forefront of issues that are legacy issues to the organization and important to the upward mobility of the families and communities we care about. We will unapologetically be a voice for common sense policies that put the well-being of our most vulnerable communities at the center.   

In light of UWNYC and the city’s partnership to aid asylum-seekers, what is your organization’s relationship with the Adams Administration like? What are its policy priorities?   

For nearly 85 years, UWNYC has worked closely with New York’s mayoral administrations as one of the most trusted organizations in the city. We take this position and our reputation seriously. We value the opportunity to have a seat at the table with Mayor Adams’ Administration, when it comes to discussing some of the city’s toughest problems in the areas of education, food insecurity, criminal justice, health equity, workforce development and small business support. When the city needs us, we’re ready to answer the call.