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NYC Grapples with Rising Tensions Over Asylum Seekers

A large blue banner reading, “NO F%*KIN WAY!” in the yard of a house next to the former St. John Villa Academy, Staten Island, Sept. 6, 2023. Photo: Nancy Chen for Documented

Mayor Eric Adams stunned New York City’s political insiders when speaking at a Wednesday community town hall on the Upper West Side. “This issue will destroy New York City,” Adams said about asylum seekers coming to New York. “The city we knew, we’re about to lose.” 

The pushback – and praise – on his comments was swift. Progressives across the city condemned his rhetoric, and accused him of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. Conservative politicians who generally oppose Adams began lauding his comments. 

Councilwoman Vickie Paladino, a Republican councilwoman who represents District 19 in Northeast Queens, said she met with Mayor Adams and thanked him, noting that they both seemed to agree on “many key points” regarding asylum seekers. “I’m gratified to know he understands the gravity of what I believe we’re facing — the total loss of our city as we know it,” Paladino said on X

Appreciation for Mayor Adams’ comments even reached a federal level, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, California Republican Kevin McCarthy, saying in a statement: “Mayor Adams is right.” 

But progressives, on the other hand, refuted the administration’s characterization of asylum seekers in New York – and warned that the Mayor’s discourse was reckless. New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, who represents the 13th Senate District in Queens and could potentially run against Mayor Adams in 2025, said that suggesting that migrants were destroying the city was “defeatist and insulting.

“This was irresponsible and is already emboldening xenophobic & anti immigrant rhetoric,” Ramos said.

Adams said at the town hall that about 110,000 migrants have now come to the city, claiming that every service was going to be impacted by the situation, and again reiterated remarks that have become common for him: The city isn’t getting the support it needs from the federal government.

Also Read: Asylum Seekers Could Cost NYC $12 Billion, Mayor Adams Says

But similar rhetoric has been building for months across New York. Back in April, at a conference of the African American Mayors Association, Mayor Adams said that the city was “being destroyed by the migrant crisis.” Earlier this summer, protests against migrant shelters began to escalate across different boroughs. 

At Floyd Bennett Field in Southeast Brooklyn, hundreds of demonstrators showed up several weeks ago to decry a potential new migrant center at the site. “Take a bus. Take a flight to another country. They’re ruining us,” one Rockaway resident told Spectrum News NY1. 

In early August, Sunset Park residents and elected officials rallied against part of the Recreation Center in the park being used as a shelter. “None of the residents actually know what’s going on in there,” Ying Tan, a Republican City Council district candidate for District 43, who helped organize the rally, told Documented in an interview.

At the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where officials opened a 1,000-bed tent shelter in mid-August, protests have been frequent. At one rally, more than a dozen people were arrested. There, residents held signs reading “Americans over migrants,” and “our children deserve a safe school.”

Outside of the former St. John Villa Academy in the Arrochar section of Staten Island, residents have gathered night after night to rally against the new temporary shelter, which has capacity to house about 300 migrants. A large, homemade blue banner has been put up in the yard of the house right next to the old school building, reading: “NO F%*KIN WAY!”

On a recent Tuesday evening, about 20 protesters gathered to rally against the shelter at the site of the former school — though some days, hundreds showed up. A. Lopez, 56, a mother of two who lives a 10-minute walk from the site, said she was concerned about what the vetting process looked like for these migrants, and why they were placed in a site right across from an all-girls school, just separated by a fence. She declined to give her full first name to protect her employment. The government, she said, “never tells you everything. They just tell you just enough to say ‘we told you,’ but not really.” 

Lopez also believed the migrants were being exploited by being housed in sub-par conditions, she said. “It is unfair to them. It’s unfair to us as taxpayers. It’s unfair to us as parents,” Lopez said. 

The following week, at another protest, migrants coming and going from the shuttered school walked quickly into the building while a growing group of demonstrators gathered down the block. Some protesters carried American flags, and congregated around tents they had set up near police barriers that stopped them from going to the entrance of the school. “It’s not safe,” one man yelled into a loudspeaker. “They are selling out your children.” Migrants declined to speak with reporters as they rushed inside the shelter. 

Despite various claims from New York City residents and elected officials about the lack of vetting for asylum seekers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says that migrants apprehended at the southern border go through various record checks. Border Patrol agents physically search migrants, record their biometric information, and check for criminal records, warrants and their immigration history, among other inspections, according to DHS. Immigration experts note that most of the migrants currently arriving in New York are in the city legally, turning themselves into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and have been assigned an upcoming ICE check-in date.

At the Sunset Park Recreation Center, migrants who spoke with Documented say they have mostly been welcomed by New Yorkers. But they have, on some occasions, felt like there was animosity towards their presence in the city. 

Angelo Casanova, from Venezuela, and Alvaro Hurtado, from Colombia, have been staying at the center for about a week. They spend every day out walking looking for work, they said, asking in restaurants, supermarkets and car washes if there’s employment. But the reception when they’re searching for jobs hasn’t been especially friendly. “Mostly, they ignore us,” said Hurtado, 35, noting that he hasn’t received any outwardly derogatory comments. “But they do look, and they just leave us standing there. And you hear them speaking Spanish, but they tell you they don’t speak Spanish.”

Casanova said that he has encountered people in New York who have expressed to him that migrants are given benefits and assistance, while other residents are left behind. “They’ve told me this personally,” he said. 

Casanova, 29, remembers an instance when he asked a man on the street in Manhattan if the man knew of any work opportunities. “The person told me that he didn’t know — and that if he did know, he wouldn’t tell me,” Casanova said, noting that the man spoke to him in Spanish. “He seemed resentful, irritated. But why?” Casanova said that he didn’t take it personally though, and laughed it off.

Some New York residents told Documented that they wished they had more of a say in how their local facilities and spaces were used. Phil Wong, the president of the group Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, said that there was a lot of “resentment” surrounding the Creedmoor shelter because there is a school and a park right across the street. The administration, he said, is “not telling the residents of what’s happening.” 

So a number of elected officials have put pressure on recent weeks for the Adams administration to increase their contact with local governments when it comes to shelter placements. In a recent interview with Documented, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. said that Queens, for example, wanted to be more involved in the planning process. 

“There is not a lot of communication around the siting of these facilities before they are put in,” Richards Jr. said. There appears to be “no real intention or intentionality around ensuring that community stakeholders like myself are alerted during the planning process,” he said. 

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a Report for America Corps Member who covers immigration for Documented, where she focuses on immigration courts and detention.

Nancy Chen

Hongyu (Nancy) Chen is a Chinese-English bilingual reporter who graduated from Columbia Journalism School. She writes about immigrant communities and older adults in New York City. She also specializes in documentary filmmaking. Prior to Columbia, she studied International Relations at the Australian National University.



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