Thousands of New York immigrants seeking asylum in the United States to escape persecution in their countries of origin now will come to Bethpage to have their cases heard.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency that reviews such petitions moved its operations from Queens to a building in the Nassau County hamlet, and the office opened Tuesday. Asylum applicants from Nassau, Suffolk and 10 other counties — including from as far away as Dutchess, Sullivan and Ulster — will come for interviews to the new location, federal agencies confirmed Friday.
The Asylum Office for New York had outgrown office space it occupied for many years in Rosedale as the docket of asylum applicants grew in the region, an immigration agency spokeswoman said.
Nearly 80 employees are expected to interview and process the cases of more than 150 immigrants a week at the new office, at 1065 Stewart Ave. The applicants are primarily people admitted to the United States on a temporary basis who say they fear persecution in their homelands because of race, religion, political opinions or identification with minority groups.
The office occupies just more than 41,000 square feet of a 235,000-square-foot building, said Patrick J. Sclafani, a spokesman with the U.S. General Services Administration that leases property for the federal government’s use.
Briarcliffe College has been the building’s main tenant. In an unrelated development this month, the for-profit, four-year school said it would close its campuses in Bethpage and Patchogue and lay off its 294 employees by the end of 2018.
Katie Tichacek Kaplan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New York and New Jersey, said the Bethpage asylum office “opened to the public on a limited schedule this week” and will build up to the usual caseload.
The immigrants who go there — usually with their attorneys — are known to the agency, she said. They schedule their appearances and are fingerprinted for background checks before they meet adjudication officers.
“In most cases they came here on another legal status,” said Tichacek Kaplan. “They’ve come forward to us, they’ve identified themselves to us, and they are here to try to become Americans. . . . If they qualify for asylum, they can apply for a green card in a year” to enter a citizenship path.
Asylum seekers are different from refugees, such as those seeking to be admitted from Syria and Iraq, in that they already live in the United States and are applying to stay before their visas expire or authorities move to deport them.
The top countries of origin for immigrants seeking asylum across the United States, as of July, were China, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Venezuela. The agency could not immediately provide a breakdown of nationalities for the New York office, one of eight in different zones.
The Bethpage office also will interview applicants from Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in New York City, as well as Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties.
“These are people running from extortion and violence,” said Robert N. Martinez, an immigration lawyer in Baldwin who represents more than 200 asylum seekers, primarily from Central America. “They are hardworking people who just want to start a life here. . . . They just want to live in peace.”
Rosemary Styne, president of the Northside Civic Association in Bethpage, said she was unsure what impact the office could have in her community, but she’s concerned about too many immigrants coming to Long Island as it is.
“I have been here 70-some odd years and it’s gotten too busy for me,” Styne said. “The middle class is disappearing. We are all going to have just immigrants and rich people here soon.”
The property was leased from Sholom & Zuckerbrot Realty in Long Island City, Queens, with the government agreeing to pay $1.3 million a year for a 15-year lease, funded with fees raised from the immigrants seeking asylum. The broker did not return a call for comment and a message left with the property manager was not returned.
George Santiago Jr., president of Briarcliffe College, said the asylum office’s location could present “opportunities for employment for our graduates” in criminal justice and legal studies.