Q&A: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks with amNY about migrant crisis, Israel-Hamas conflict, and more

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Photo by Dean Moses

Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, has plenty of issues to keep her busy these days — an influx of over 140,000 migrants to the Big Apple, a nearly two-month conflict between Israel and Hamas and the day-to-day issues that matter to Americans, just to name a few.

Gillibrand, who has represented the Empire State in Washington’s upper chamber for nearly 15 years, is also headed into an election year where Democrats are trying to keep President Joe Biden in the White House, maintain their U.S. Senate Majority and take back the House of Representatives. The Senator is up for reelection herself, but currently has no challengers.

Gillibrand is one of the lawmakers best positioned to get New York City more of the aid it desperately needs as it continues to accommodate tens of thousands of migrants and receive thousands more every week. The senator, along with her New York counterpart Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has fought for and won the city $140 million in reimbursements for its migrant crisis spending, though that falls far short of the $1.5 billion the city has already spent on the influx.

But even with Gillibrand’s support, a Republican-controlled House and Biden heading into an election year present major roadblocks to the city receiving more migrant funding and comprehensive immigration reform passing in Congress.

When it comes to the conflict in Israel and Gaza, spurred by the militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians and military installations that left 1,400 Israelis dead. Gillibrand has stood firmly behind Israel and focussed much of her attention on calling for the release of roughly 240 hostages taken by Hamas during the attack — 110 of whom have been released in recent days

But since the Oct. 7 attack Israel has conducted a massive bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed nearly 15,000 Palestinians, many of them innocent civilians — according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The dramatic loss of civilian life has led to near daily mass protests in the five boroughs, where demonstrators are calling for a ceasefire, targeting members of Congress who have been resistant to call for the action including Gillibrand.

The Senator is also consumed with the day-to-day business of legislating, hoping to secure more funding for 9/11 first responders and pass a bill cracking down on workplace discrimination in older adults. amNewYork Metro sat down with Gillibrand on Nov. 29 to discuss these issues and more in a wide-ranging interview.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Migrant crisis

amNY: Let’s start with the migrant crisis. There’s over 140,000 migrants that have come to New York City since April 2022. And the federal government so far hasn’t given the city the funding that it’s been asking for. What do you think is standing in the way of Washington, and the White House in particular, providing more migrant assistance. As well as the “decompression strategy” that we’ve often heard Mayor Eric Adams ask for?

Sen. Gillibrand: We have a lot of challenges in our immigration laws, and they desperately need to be updated. One of our challenges is that we don’t have partners in the House [of Representatives] right now who are willing to rewrite the laws that aren’t working. Our asylum system is deeply broken. Most of the migrants that have come to New York are seeking asylum, so they’re actually here legally, not illegally. But what we would want to happen under comprehensive immigration reform or any immigration reform, if we could get it done, is we want them to file that claim on the first day, so the clock would start ticking on how quickly they could get their work visas. If you are in a Temporary Protective Status country, like Venezuela, which we just achieved, or Haiti, because of the earthquake, or other countries that have this special status, they can work within 30 days. For everybody else, they can’t work until 180 days, that’s six months. And that’s from the minute they actually file their asylum claim. Most of these migrants [are] arriving to New York, having not filed any asylum claim. And I’ve brought this to the attention of both the governor and the mayor that one thing we can ask the local not-for-profits to do and one thing we could ask a lot of local businesses to do is to help with basic legal work to get their asylum claims filed. So that’s problem one, the timeline’s too long. So I would like to change the timeline to 30 days for all asylum seekers, not just those with the Temporary Protective Status. 

The second change we need is it’s taking them two-to-three years to get the claim heard, which is absurd. And so we need more lawyers, and we need more judges. And so I have legislation to have Article One courts formed, which are Congressionally-mandated courts, just to do immigration claims. And to then surge lawyers, so we can actually have those claims heard quickly. Last number I heard was about two-thirds of these asylum seekers in New York aren’t eligible for asylum, so they’d be sent home. So if we had a functioning immigration system, we would address these claims more quickly. Ideally, you’d want people to apply from [their] country of origin.

One of the other ideas I have is, we don’t really have the right number of visas for the right number of jobs that we have in this country that are open. In New York State. The governor has said many times that we have 200,000 open jobs in almost every industry, in healthcare and agriculture and tourism and hotels and restaurants. If we could fill these jobs with capable and trained migrant workers who want to be working, it will really help our economy grow. 

amNY: I believe you have a bill to shorten that window for work permits, correct?

Sen. Gillibrand: I do, to shorten the 180 days down to 30 days. It’s called the ASPIRE Act.

amNY: Where would you say the support is for that?

Sen. Gillibrand: Well, I’ve been very disappointed with the Republican House delegation from New York. This is the kind of bill they should be supporting, pushing their leadership to allow a vote on. And I know that there’s a working group working on bipartisan ideas right now. And I just hope it can be included in those bipartisan ideas.

Gun violence

amNY: On another topic, curbing gun violence is a central issue for you. And President Biden signed your legislation to make gun trafficking across state lines a crime into law last year. Can you give me some examples of how this legislation has worked in practice so far?

Sen. Gillibrand: [The bill] makes gun trafficking a federal crime with very heavy penalties, up to 25 years [in prison] for kingpins, and people running trafficking rings. And already, nationwide, we’ve confiscated thousands of weapons, and we’ve arrested hundreds of traffickers. So what this means is less guns on the streets of New York City. Less weapons for gang violence and stray bullets to hit innocent people. And we’re going to be issuing a report. I think it’s next week. And the report tells you there’s 1,300 illegal guns seized so far, 160 defendants have been charged so far. And one of the best successes was that the Latin Kings were raided and they seized dozens of ghost guns and two 3-D printers from the Latin Kings in New Jersey. So that was definitely a gun ring that was coming up the iron pipeline to New York.

9/11 survivor health

amNY: Changing gears again, I know you passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to add $676 million to close the funding shortfall for the World Trade Center Health Program. While you were able to get this done with Republican support, the NDAA is up for debate right now. Do you think that will pass before the holiday? 

Sen. Gillibrand: It’s very strongly supported on a bipartisan basis. We just had our conference committee, with the Armed Services Committees at the House and the Senate, and it was included in the package. And what this money will do is make sure that the first responders in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon are covered. And to make sure the first responders who were active-duty service members and veterans are also covered. And so it was really important, as a matter of fairness, to help all the first responders. And then second, it begins to defray some of the costs for the actual healthcare costs that have gone up. Healthcare costs have risen exponentially and at a higher rate than inflation. So the formula we put in place in 2015 didn’t accommodate such a significant rise in cost of medical care and medicine. So we need to get more money next year and the year after, we’ll just keep trying till it’s fully funded. We’re about $2 billion more to go.

Israel-Hamas conflict

amNY: Now shifting to the Israel-Hamas conflict, even with many hostages being released in recent days there’s still well over 100 in captivity. I know you’ve talked about getting the hostages home being a big priority for you, is there anything that you can do in your position to expedite their return?

Sen. Gillibrand: Yes, I can keep their stories alive. I’ve gone to the floor three times to tell their stories about who is being held hostage. The children, the babies, the families, the mothers. Talk about their lives, talk about who they are, to make sure that the news media and the national consciousness does not lose sight of these innocent lives that are being held and may not survive if they’re continuously held. So we need those hostages home, there’s still nine Americans being held hostage. This is something every American citizen should care about, regardless of how you see this conflict. And so I am talking about the hostages, often in news media on the Senate floor and lifting up their stories, so they will not be forgotten.

amNY: With nearly 15,000 Palestinians already killed since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, and near daily demonstrations here in the city calling for a ceasefire, at what point would you support a more permanent end to the fighting?

Sen. Gillibrand: I would support an end to the fighting as soon as we can get the hostages home and as soon as we can have resolution. What has to happen is humanitarian pauses are fine for hostage release, and if hostages are being released every day, we can support humanitarian pauses. But I think, frankly, when people use the term ceasefire, they’re thinking more broadly about an end to the conflict, which I also want to see an end to the conflict. But what a ceasefire actually means is that Israel can’t get those hostages back. It can’t fight against Hamas. It can’t stop bombs coming across their border. It can’t stop missiles. It can’t do anything to protect its country, can’t protect Israel, can’t protect Israelis. Hamas has said it would like a ceasefire so that it can invade Israel again and steal more hostages and kill more people. They have said they will do this over and over and over again. So a ceasefire is not good for innocent vulnerable Palestinians. It’s not good for any Israeli citizen. It just means Hamas wins. 

amNY: Do you think there’s another way that innocent Palestinians can be protected and get more humanitarian aid into Gaza as well?

Sen. Gillibrand: Well, we’re getting 100 trucks in a day, which is what the aid organizations asked for. But we need the Arab allies to take refugees. Like we really need Egypt to open the Rafah Gate, open the border, let refugees come for whatever time it takes for this conflict to end. We need Jordan, we need Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, all to take refugees until the conflict is over. That’s the safest way to defeat Hamas and protect innocent Palestinians. We also are hoping to vote on a supplemental bill of $10 billion of humanitarian aid.

Other issues

amNY: On another topic, can you tell me a little bit about your bill to ban forced arbitration in workplace age discrimination cases?

Sen. Gillibrand: We passed last year a bill that guaranteed that if you’re sexually assaulted or harassed, you can sue in a court of law and not sign a nondisclosure agreement. You’re not forced into arbitration. That impacted 60 million employment contracts overnight. I did that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). And so I asked him, “can we do these protections for all workers?” And we agreed that the group of workers he was willing to do this for next were older workers. So now we have an anti age discrimination bill that will allow older workers to sue in a court of law and not have to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they are discriminated against. It would make the forced arbitration clauses null and void and their employment contracts. And again, that would help upward of 60 million people to have more rights to a jury trial and a right to speak freely, and not have to be silenced.

amNY: Looking ahead to next year, it’s a big year president’s on the ballot, Senate, House control. How do you feel about the Democrats chances of keeping the Senate retaking the house keeping the presidency?

Sen. Gillibrand: I’m working very hard on a coordinated campaign so we can flip the house through New York and make Hakeem Jaffa Jeffries, the next Speaker of the House. I’m optimistic that Joe Biden can run on his record of accomplishment and that he will prevail.