Migrants Demand Humane Housing as Adams Tries to Revive Tent City Plan

Issue 277

The protesting migrants have been searching for a home for months, sometime years.

Derek Ludovici & Amba Guerguerian Feb 2, 2023

Since June, busloads of asylum-seeking migrants had been arriving in New York City, sent by Texas Governor Greg Abbott from border towns. Some said they were forced on the bus, or misinformed about its destination. Across the board, migrants were told in Texas they would find helpful services and resources in New York. Since the start of Abbott’s bussing policy, other border states have joined in the practice, with more than 40,000 asylum seekers having arrived in the city, at least 22,000 of which have stayed.

In a break with normal migration patterns, many of these asylum seekers don’t have family or friends here, making them more dependent on City services. Under the “right to shelter” guaranteed in the New York State Constitution, the City must provide shelter to anyone who seeks it on any given night. 

Patrick and his family arrived in New York City at the end of October, a journey that began over a decade earlier. Originally from Haiti, he moved to Brazil where he resided for 10 years before leaving due to racism in the country. Patrick, like most, endured an arduous overland journey to the U.S. border that included serious threats in Mexico, where, if Haitians weren’t able to bribe Mexican officials, they would be held in detention and treated cruelly.

Migrants have been strongly refuting the City’s claim that they are not self-organized.

Once Patrick and his family made it through the Border Patrol detention camp in Texas with their asylum claim, they were placed on a 40-plus-hour bus ride to New York. Upon arrival, they had to navigate the City’s bureaucracy. Many of those with families, like Patrick, end up in one of the city’s Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRC), mainly hotels contracted by the city to act as homeless shelters.

Mayor Eric Adams, who stated “there is no more room in the inn” when he traveled to El Paso, Texas in early January, has increasingly hinted that the city’s right to shelter does not apply to migrants.

A Dec. 15 report from the City Comptroller Brad Lander released estimated that the migrant influx is costing the City around $1 billion annually — which the federal government has refused to subsidize. The Biden administration only recently announced it would loosen restrictions that have thus barred the migrants from getting work permits. This has made them more likely to rely on the City and more vulnerable to low or stolen wages and dangerous working conditions if they choose to seek employment illegally.

The protesters’ demands are: a bed, a place they can safely leave their belongings, bathroom and shower access, heat, and work permits.

Patrick told his story on Dec. 20 at a migrant-organized speak-out at Holyrood Church in Washington Heights. The organizers claimed basic items such as clothing and hot meals have been withheld from them at the Midtown hotels contracted as HERRCs where they’re staying. These items were provided at the speak-out by the event’s sponsors, South Bronx Mutual Aid (SBXMA) and La Morada Restaurant.

Most of the speakers were from the Row NYC Hotel and New York Manhattan Hotel (NYMA) where staff has been accused of verbal abuse and threats. “I understand when the workers are saying insults about us in English,” Patrick said.

Another migrant resident said, “We are constantly told that we will be removed from the hotel or deported if we say anything. We are threatened if anyone, for example, doesn’t have their key on them at a given time.” 

One mother spoke about how her family was removed to the street after a verbal disagreement with security led to staff tasing her husband. They terminated the family’s stay when she asked to speak to the police.  

We spoke with Ariadna Phillips of South Bronx Mutual Aid in August about the city’s reception of migrants bussed from Texas.

Not all staff have been accused of abuse. Sally Saval was terminated from the Row by text message on Nov. 22, just 12 days after being hired. She claims this was in retaliation for attempting to secure more resources for migrants. “I got fired for doing my job. I got fired because I was advocating for them.”  

“We are not given access to warm food. The food is often frozen. It’s not fit to eat. At times it appears they [giving people] raw food.” said Natalie, a migrant from Venezuela, speaking to the dietary conditions at the Row. “Many people have gotten sick. We are only given this food at night, so during the day what we have [is] maybe bread, water or an apple to eat.”

Advocates have criticized the HERRCs for not only failing to provide essential resources, but for preventing mutual aid groups from directly distributing goods. “When I did a distro at NYMA, the security guard, who is contracted by the City, she called the cops on me,” said Desiree Joy Fria of SBXMA. 

“Many of these reported incidents are not exclusive to one hotel or to one shelter, and many, if not most, unhoused New Yorkers have universally experienced these types of abuses for a sustained period of time,” said Ariadna Phillips of SBXMA at the speak-out. SBXMA is a part of the Mutual Aid Collective, a network spread across the city that has been providing migrants support since they started arriving. Many of its participating mutual-aid groups sprung up during the 2020 George Floyd uprising.

The Collective, some NGOs and other solidarity groups have committed to supporting arriving migrants, assisting them as they navigate what the City has to offer in the way of shelters, schools and medical care as well as organizing the collection and distribution of essential items. And New Yorkers who have heard about the migrants’ needs have donated essential supplies. One grade school in Queens asked the Astoria Food Pantry for jackets, boots, gloves, hats and socks for around 100 migrant students, which the organization crowd funded and distributed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

“No to discrimination against migrants,” reads a sign at the migrant protest encampment in front of The Watson Hotel. Marty Kirchner
“Stable housing builds stable lives.” Sue Brisk
“Foto perdida/lost photo.” Sue Brisk
“Housing is a human right.” Sue Brisk

In September, Adams had a tent city built for the migrants in the sprawling Orchard Beach parking lot in the far corner of northeast Bronx. A video shared on social media by Phillips that showed the area flooding was widely viewed, helping to spark an outcry that forced the City to move the planned refugee camp to Randall’s Island. Within a month, that facility, which was difficult to access via public transport, was also scrapped. The City sent its occupants, single men, to The Watson Hotel on W. 57 St. It is now executing its third tent-city plan, which is to move the men from The Watson to a camp in Red Hook at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal — until May, when cruise season resumes.

The Red Hook camp has around 1,000 beds and 80 bathrooms. The cots have one layer of cloth and the sheets and thin blankets provided are not sufficient to keep people warm in the winter. 

The City began evicting migrants from The Watson on Jan. 29. Around 50 of the evicted men swiftly organized a protest camp beneath scaffolding on the sidewalk outside the hotel. They had found part-time work in the area and feared conditions at the distant Red Hook terminal. They demanded the City provide a more suitable place to relocate to. Small groups of supporters and cops were constants at the scene. Nearby, the most expensive apartments in the city overlook Central Park, and homeless people sleep on the steps of the 57th St. N-Q-R-W station. 

After seeing first-hand the conditions at the Red Hook facility, some of the men traveled back to The Watson to join the encampment. The protesters’ demands are: a bed, a place they can safely leave their belongings, bathroom and shower access, heat, and work permits. “We’re not asking for a three-star hotel,” said a migrant to a city official on the first night of the protest encampment. 

Dissenting migrants have been strongly refuting the City’s claim that they are not self-organized. During a press conference held by the protesters at the encampment on Jan. 31, Ivan, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela said, “We are all very conscious of what we’re doing. We just want a dignified place to sleep.”

Last night around 8 p.m., the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a battalion tasked with the dual mission of responding to terrorist attacks and handling protests, dismantled the encampment. Migrants and supporters grabbed the supplies they could and left the scene. The cops indiscriminately cut the chains off and impounded all the bikes locked up around the hotel. The whereabouts of the protesting migrants are currently unknown. Follow @TheIndypendent for further developments.

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