New York City Had a Migrant Crisis. It Hired a Covid Expert to Help.
"DocGo, a medical services company, received a $432 million no-bid contract to move hundreds of asylum seekers outside the city. Many say they have been threatened, mistreated and lied to.
Lured by the promise of jobs, legal assistance and a more welcoming environment, hundreds of asylum seekers have boarded buses headed north to Albany, in search of a life better than they had found in New York City.
But once they settled in the state capital, many said they realized they had been misled and all but abandoned.
Instead of state identification cards, they were given dubious work eligibility and residency letters on what appeared to be a fake letterhead. At the bargain-rate motels where the migrants were relocated, many said they were treated like prisoners in halfway houses, living under written threats that they would be barred from seeking asylum if they were caught drinking or smoking.
They complained that crucial mail about their asylum cases had been lost, and worried that they now faced an hourslong trip to the courts where those cases will be heard.
Nearly three months after Mayor Eric Adams ushered in a new policy calling for the city to relocate migrants outside the five boroughs, the program has been plagued by problems, drawing attention to the no-bid contractor leading the effort.
More than 1,500 migrants have been sent to places as far as Buffalo, with more on the way. But many of the migrants have been greeted by protests at their new homes, as well as mistreatment and the false hope of jobs.
Behind the broken promises is a medical services company, DocGo, that once contracted with the city to provide Covid testing and vaccination services, but pivoted to migrant care as the pandemic waned and a new crisis emerged.
The city awarded DocGo a $432 million contract, which took effect in early May, without subjecting it to competitive bidding. The contract called for DocGo to house migrants and provide them with services including case management, medical care, food, transportation, lodging and round-the-clock security.
But its efforts to resettle migrants in Albany have been rocky, at best. Local authorities have expressed frustration at the lack of coordination between DocGo and agencies that could provide services to the migrants; local security guards hired by DocGo have repeatedly threatened the migrants; and finding steady work has been nearly impossible.
Alejandro, 25, a Venezuelan migrant who arrived in Albany about two months ago, spoke of the promises he was offered: “They said, ‘Would you like to live in a hotel? Would you like to live more comfortably? Would you like to get some help?’” (The Times agreed to use only the first names of the migrants because they fear revealing their identities could put them in danger or jeopardize their asylum cases.)
“Supposedly they were going to help us get work, but in reality I see this is false. It’s a lie,” Alejandro said. “It’s all illusions. It’s all falsehoods.”
From medical care to migrants
The first busloads of migrants began showing up in Manhattan last spring. By the following May, more than 60,000 had followed suit, a number that has since risen to over 90,000.
Mr. Adams, who has repeatedly railed at Washington for failing to provide more financial help, said on May 5 that the situation was untenable. He announced that the city had no choice but to bus asylum seekers outside the five boroughs, where the city would pay to temporarily shelter them. That same day, DocGo’s contract went into effect, according to the scant records available online.
Headquartered in New York City, the company launched in 2015 under the name Ambulnz, before changing it to DocGo in 2021 when it became a publicly traded corporation. Its specialty is on-the-go medical services — including testing, blood work and wound care performed at people’s homes — that it says can dramatically reduce health care costs by keeping people out of the hospital.
DocGo’s fortunes soared during the pandemic, with Covid testing accounting for roughly a third of its revenue in 2021. The company, whose president, Lee Bienstock, 40, gained fame after being “fired” in 2006 by Donald J. Trump from “The Apprentice,” now holds a value of about $1 billion, but company officials cautioned in recent financial filings that the Covid testing revenue had mostly dried up.
City Hall officials declined to immediately provide the DocGo contract or answer basic questions about it. Nor has it been sent to the office of the city comptroller, Brad Lander, the final step for contract approval, his aides said.
It is clear, however, that the contract is a windfall for DocGo: If the company collects the maximum value of $432 million, it would equal 10 percent of the city’s projected two-year cost for migrant care, and would nearly match the company’s total 2022 revenue of $440 million.
Six weeks after New York City’s contract with DocGo became effective, Mr. Adams seemed suitably impressed. At DocGo’s investor conference at Nasdaq offices in Times Square, the exchange where its stock is publicly traded, the mayor compared DocGo’s innovation in health care to the jump from landline phones to smartphones.
“If you don’t have docs on the go, then you have a retro thinking of health care,” Mr. Adams told investors on June 20. The mayor gave a nod to the company’s pandemic work and said it was now crucial to “have that solid partnership” in dealing with “our migrant asylum seekers.”
In Albany, that notion of partnership has been somewhat lacking. DocGo has not given local authorities or volunteers the migrants’ names or key details about their backgrounds and immigration status — information needed to help them navigate various assistance programs and secure asylum.
DocGo has cited medical privacy laws in refusing to provide personal information, but Albany officials and migrant advocates say that the company has thus far rejected practical solutions like waivers or consent forms.
Kate Smart, a spokeswoman for Mr. Adams, said sharing names could endanger vulnerable people who have been met upstate with “protest and resistance, including cases of people banging on the doors of buses and barricading hotel entrances.”
On May 26, the day before the first bus carrying migrants arrived in the capital region, two top New York City officials — Betsy MacLean, the city’s chief engagement officer, and George Sarkissian, chief of staff at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development — told local government officials and immigration advocates that they hoped to form a partnership, according to a recording of a Zoom meeting obtained by The Times.
“I don’t know how this is a partnership,” replied Evelyn Kinnah, director of Albany County’s Immigration Assistance Center, “when you have 300 people on the way here to Albany, and we’re screaming and telling you that we don’t have the resources to help these people.”
“All you want to do,” she added, “is put these people on a bus and ship them somewhere else.”
‘You will find plenty of work’
Trouble ensued even before the first bus left for Albany County. DocGo placed some migrants at the SureStay Hotel in Colonie, a predominantly white suburb just outside the capital, despite warnings from local government officials and migrant advocates that they would not be welcome.
The Republican town supervisor, Peter Crummey, filed a lawsuit against New York City the same day.
At the SureStay, a sign posted on the wall translated into four languages falsely warned migrants that they would lose their “opportunity to seek asylum status!” if caught drinking, smoking or engaging in threatening behavior.
DocGo acknowledged in written responses to The Times that it had no authority over migrants’ asylum cases, and said it took down the sign “immediately after learning about it.”
The SureStay’s general manager, Tyler Kinney, also recalled another unusual incident where he recently had to intervene when he saw a security guard target shooting with an air rifle in the parking lot.
DocGo said its security contractor, Wawanda Investigations, conducted an investigation and fired the employee. DocGo said it was “currently evaluating additional local security partners for this assignment.” The company said it had provided services to more than 24,000 asylum seekers to date and that “the safety and well-being of those in our care is our top priority.”
Wawanda declined to comment.
I recently visited the Ramada Plaza in Albany to interview some of the migrants from New York City. The interviews were conducted under constant threats and warnings from DocGo’s hired security team, which ordered the migrants not to speak to the media, or else face expulsion from the program.
Of the 16 migrants in Albany who shared their stories with The Times, two said they came voluntarily and only with the promise that they would have more space, comfort and privacy than they had in New York City. One said he wasn’t given a choice. The rest said authorities in the city lied to them.
Abdou, 27, said he is on the run from political oppression in Senegal. Sofia, 29, and her partner, Fernanda, left Venezuela because of the economic ruin and anti-gay discrimination they said they faced. Mohammad, 26, fled Afghanistan last year after it fell to the Taliban and said he’d be killed if he returned.
On the evening of July 7, a security guard kept close watch over the interviews, and became more and more agitated, shouting threats that I captured on video.
After several migrants disobeyed the order to refrain from speaking to reporters, one of the guards told his apparent supervisor what he planned to do to one of them, Franklin, a 26-year-old migrant from Barinas, Venezuela, who has been at the Ramada since May 31.
“I’m puttin’ him to sleep,” he said, making his way toward the migrants. “I’m going to beat the [expletive] out of him.”
The guard grew more agitated and said of Franklin, “He talk too much, bro, I’m serious” — prompting his supervisor to grab his arm and start leading him back toward the hotel entrance. Pointing directly at the Venezuelan, the guard yelled out as he was being led away, “I swear, when I catch you. I swear to God, man.”
None of the migrants could understand the guard, but Franklin said he got the gist from his body language, and enough of the meaning from a translating app, to know it was a threat. City officials have since said there is no rule prohibiting interviews, and they and DocGo officials said they are investigating the incident.
Most of the migrants who spoke to The Times complained that they had been enticed to go to Albany by the promise of finding work. Fernanda, from Santa Bárbara del Zulia, Venezuela, was one of several migrants who said she was led to believe that she could get work papers or an ID if she displayed a document, provided by a caseworker at the Ramada Plaza, that asserted that the migrants have New York residency.
The document was improperly self-notarized: A caseworker who attested to Fernanda’s residency at the Ramada affixed her notary seal and signature on it.
By then, Fernanda and others had taken it to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a short walk from the hotel, but a Spanish-speaking worker there told them it was not enough to secure an ID. (After The Times inquired, DocGo said that as of mid-July that form wasn’t being used anymore.)
Outside the Ramada, Fernanda angrily waved the residency document in the air.
“It’s fake,” she said. “It’s useless.”
In early June, DocGo was warned during a Zoom call that migrants were being incorrectly told they were eligible for work.
Yet at another hotel, a Holiday Inn in Albany, migrants were still being given letters, including one dated July 5 and signed by a DocGo representative, asserting that the asylum seekers were “eligible for employment” as independent contractors, records obtained by The Times show.
The letters featured what appeared to be fake letterhead: a grainy New York City logo at the top. A mayoral spokeswoman said the city did not provide the logo to DocGo; DocGo officials declined to explain where they got it.
On July 13, DocGo said the form letter was no longer being used.