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Standoff at NYC Hotel: Asylum Seekers Protest Relocation & Demand Their Right to Shelter in City

StoryFebruary 01, 2023
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Since last spring, nearly 42,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City, many sent to the state on buses against their will. The city says it has opened 77 emergency shelters and four Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers, but asylum seekers say the city has dragged its feet on providing job permits and permanent and humane housing. Many are now peacefully protesting outside a hotel not far from Times Square, where they were living for weeks until city officials suddenly evicted them over the weekend to move them to a remote warehouse facility in Brooklyn that contains 1,000 cots and lacks heating. Mutual aid organizers have rallied with the asylum seekers and vowed to fight the evictions. For more, we’re joined by Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, and Desiree Joy Frías, a community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

More than 40,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City since last spring, some sent here on buses against their will. We’re going to look now at how many are pleading with New York officials to provide permanent and humane housing, as well as job permits so they can make a living. The city says it’s opened 77 emergency shelters and four Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers, or HERRCs. But this week, dozens of migrants have been sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Watson Hotel, not far from Times Square, right near Columbus Circle, where they were living for weeks until city officials suddenly evicted them over the weekend to move them to a remote terminal facility filled with a thousand cots, head to toe.

This is Labador, a Venezuelan asylum seeker who was evicted from the Watson Hotel. As he spoke, he held up a picture on his phone of the new site.

LABADOR: This is like a jail. What is that? Oh, yeah, they take a million dollars for immigrants’ programs, but they do that for us? What is that? That’s no good.

AMY GOODMAN: The new facility is at a cruise terminal in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Asylum seekers who agreed to tour it Tuesday with the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs said their tour confirmed it’s too isolated, lacks privacy and sufficient heat, they said.

On Monday, Democracy Now!'s María Taracena and Sonyi Lopez were on the ground as police barricaded the hotel. Asylum seekers, some went on buses to be taken to the new site; others refused. This is Ximena Bustamante, mutual aid organizer, founder of the Undocumented Women's Fund.

XIMENA BUSTAMANTE: Many of them have already jobs in the area, and, you know, like, they have built community around here. … And actually, they cannot be forced, because there is in New York a right to shelter. However, there have been police called here to intimidate them, and they have stood their ground. They are camping outside.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of asylum seekers shared an exclusive video recording with Democracy Now! of a Watson Hotel staff member telling them the city is not giving them other options and that the hotel had to be emptied out to carry out construction.

WATSON HOTEL STAFF MEMBER: [translated] The city is not giving you any more options. They want everything here to be emptied out because they have to demolish everything. They’re bringing construction crews.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Iván, an asylum seeker from Venezuela, told Democracy Now! he was assaulted Sunday night by a security guard working at the Watson Hotel. He said he’s been in New York for about three months. He trekked for thousands of miles from Venezuela to the U.S.-Mexico border, crossing through the deadly Darién jungle along the Colombia-Panama border, where several other migrants lost their lives in the journey. This is Iván outside the Watson Hotel Monday afternoon.

IVÁN: [translated] I was filming the men who were being loaded onto the buses. Several of us were filming them when the security guard, a staff member from the Watson Hotel, assaulted me. He tried to take my cellphone. When I tried to move it away from him, he punched me back here. He punched me really hard. …

This is a very unfortunate situation, that they’re mistreating us when we’re here because we want a better future. We came here to work, to provide a better life for our families. Everything we’ve endured has really taken a toll. We don’t have anywhere to sleep. But our faith is still strong. …

If we don’t have anywhere to sleep and rest, then we can’t work or do much. Some of my friends have been out here for two days. We haven’t slept at all. They kicked us out of the hotel without a motive. …

We denounce the abuse from the guards at the hotel, their disrespect. We are human beings with families, just like all of you.

AMY GOODMAN: New York officials are reportedly planning to use the hotel to house asylum-seeking families with children, they say. All this comes as New York City Mayor Eric Adams has rejected the idea that asylum seekers are protected by the city’s right-to-shelter law. He spoke last week on WABC’s Sid & Friends.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: The courts ruled that this is a sanctuary city. We have a moral and legal obligation to fulfill that. We don’t believe asylum seekers fall into the whole right-to-shelter conversation. This is a crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Josh Goldfein, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! So, the mayor says, though there is a right to shelter, it does not extend to these asylum seekers. Can you respond, and to the whole crisis that’s not only going on at the Watson Hotel but happening all over, just playing out in front of everyone there?

JOSH GOLDFEIN: I mean, just to clarify, I think the mayor was referring specifically to rules around who gets a bed when. The City Hall and the mayor himself, I think, later clarified that they were not saying that the asylum seekers don’t have a right to shelter; they just are concerned that the city won’t be able to comply with various requirements about, for instance, what time somebody has to get a bed or how long they can be kept waiting in an application office. There were not saying that they don’t believe that asylum seekers somehow are not people entitled to shelter the way everyone else is.

But I think what we’re seeing here is the result of failure of government on every level. I mean, obviously, you know, we’ve got to start with climate change and immigration policy. The federal government could make all of this go away in a second by giving these folks work authorization. You heard that people just want to work. They already are working. Many people are working off the books and being taken advantage of in that way. But if they were given work authorization, they could have on-the-books jobs, and they would be able to leave these shelters, because they’d have enough income to find a place to live.

There’s also a failure by the state to contribute to assisting to relocate people to other parts of the state. Certainly, the federal government should be paying for the costs of this shelter, as well. But the city has access to various programs that it developed to move people into permanent housing. And what we’re seeing right now is that this administration and the prior administration, mayoral administrations, did not move people fast enough out of shelter and into permanent housing. And as a result, the shelters were already full when migrants started to come. So, if we could invest in affordable housing, if we could invest in the programs that we have to keep people in their homes and also to move people out of shelter and into permanent housing, it would free up a lot of space in the shelter system. That would allow the migrants to be sheltered there, and we wouldn’t need to be putting people in cruise terminals or in tents on Randalls Island or in cruise ships or summer camps or some of the other things that the city has talked about doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Josh, the sheer number of people that have come to New York, more than 40,000, that’s the size of a small city. To what degree is the federal government responsible for being able to assist localities? Because, obviously, it’s not just New York. Chicago, Philadelphia, many of the major northern cities suddenly, as people are being bused from Texas and Florida here, have encountered huge numbers like they haven’t seen in quite a while, in terms of people needing temporary shelter. What’s the responsibility of the federal government in this?

JOSH GOLDFEIN: You’re absolutely right. This is a nationwide problem. People are in every community in the United States. There may be more of them in New York than in some other places. But there are more people in Florida, for instance, who have crossed the border. You know, most people crossing the border did not have in their heart that they wanted to be in New York City. And 40,000 is a relatively small percentage of the number of people who have crossed.

The federal government, again, could just solve this problem immediately by giving people work authorization. We have labor shortages in this country, and we have a group of people who are here, who are legally entitled to be here, because they have a pending asylum claim, and they need to be able to support themselves. So, it would be a win-win if we were just to give people the opportunity to work legally, on the books, and not be exploited, rather than forcing them into the shadow economy, because, obviously, people are going to need income while they’re here. They’re going to find something to do to gain income.

AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, I also went to the Watson Hotel, and a number of the people there are already working, and they’re really horrified that having to go to this remote terminal in Red Hook, they won’t be able to easily get to their jobs. We’re joined on the phone in this last minute by Desiree Joy Frías. I met her outside the Watson Hotel with many other community organizers with South Bronx Mutual Aid. In this minute, Desiree, if you can just tell us what is the latest, after the city took people who wanted to go to look at the facility, come back and report to others?

DESIREE JOY FRÍAS: Yes. So, a delegation of migrants who have been leading all of this work went yesterday to Red Hook to see the conditions. Some of them had already been there and walked back to Watson because the conditions were so poor. Videos have been circulating on WhatsApp of the conditions inside. There’s only four showers for over 500 people. There’s not enough running water. The beds are head to tail. And more importantly, there’s a lot of issues right now with communicable diseases — COVID-19, chickenpox. We’ve been dealing with these outbreaks at the 25 shelters we serve across New York City.

And I understand the interest to want to house migrant families, but you can’t create second class of citizens just because they’re asylum seekers, just because they’re single men, and put them in a different kind of shelter, a detention camp, just because they’re single men.

AMY GOODMAN: So, will they stay outside the Watson at this point, where they are camped out over the last few days after being evicted from the hotel?

DESIREE JOY FRÍAS: Yeah, I’m here with one of the migrants, as well, in the car. And he has told me that the call right now from migrants is to be allowed back into their rooms at the Watson, being put into permanent housing, not just shelter to shelter. We keep shuffling people around like they’re not real human beings with lives and needs and health. They need everyone. All New Yorkers have a right to permanent, stable housing. And like the attorney said on the call earlier, they’re not moving people fast enough in the shelters.

AMY GOODMAN: Desiree Joy Frías, we want to thank you for being with us, community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid, helping folks outside the Watson Hotel, and Josh Goldfein, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society. That does it for our show. Special thanks to María Taracena and Sonyi Lopez. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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