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“We Want a Better Future”: Meet an Asylum Seeker Evicted from NYC Hotel, Demanding Humane Treatment

Web ExclusiveFebruary 03, 2023
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This week, New York City police evicted an encampment of asylum seekers outside the Watson Hotel who were protesting plans to house them in a remote, crowded and cold facility. Mayor Eric Adams suggested the protesters were “agitators,” not migrants themselves. We speak to a Venezuelan asylum seeker named Ruben, who was evicted from the hotel, and Desiree Joy Frías, a community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid, which has been deeply involved in supporting the asylum seekers arriving in the city.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show here in New York City, where police dismantled an encampment of asylum seekers outside Manhattan’s Watson Hotel Wednesday night, threatening to arrest anyone who didn’t leave. Videos show sanitation workers throwing suitcases into a dumpster as police surrounded the sidewalk. The asylum seekers, who were recently evicted from the hotel near Columbus Circle, were protesting the city’s plan to house them in a thousand-bed facility in a remote terminal in Red Hook, Brooklyn. People staying at the facility told the group South Bronx Mutual Aid they have had to endure inhumane conditions, including extreme cold.

At a press conference Wednesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams questioned whether the asylum seekers camping on the sidewalk outside the Watson Hotel were actually migrants.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: And I’m not even sure they are migrants. There are some agitators that are just really — I think, is doing as a disservice to the migrants and doing a disservice to the children and families we’re moving into the hotel.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Wednesday, before city officials cleared the encampment of asylum seekers, Democracy Now!'s Juan González and I spoke to a Venezuelan asylum seeker named Ruben, who came into a television studio not far from the Watson Hotel to share his story. Juan interviewed Ruben speaking in Spanish, and we've added voiceovers in English for both of them. Ruben was joined by Desiree Joy Frías, a community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid, and I began by asking her to respond to Mayor Adams’ remarks.

DESIREE JOY FRÍAS: That’s correct. So, those are the quotes, that they are paid actors, the migrants outside the Watson, and that the mutual aid organizers, collectives, neighbors that are dropping by with home-cooked food are outside agitators. We’re New Yorkers. I’m born and raised here. I’m the child of migrants.

Why do I do this work? Why do I step away from my 3-year-old and my husband, from my warm home, to come out and do mutual aid work? It’s because the only people providing care to these people right now is community. And will we continue to do it until we don’t have to do that work anymore? Absolutely.

But should we also have the preliminary budget 2024 that Eric Adams has put together adjusted so that it stops cutting funding to social services, to libraries, and stops funneling billions of dollars to the seventh-largest army in the world? Yeah, that would be really great, because the problems of housing are systemic and are not going to be resolved by moving single men out, putting families into the Watson. The hotel was never the final solution. The final solution is permanent housing for all New Yorkers, stable housing, whether you’re born here, whether you’re not born here. There should never be a second class of humans that are put into a different style shelter just because they’re single men.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] And I’d like to ask Ruben: Could you tell us a bit about how long ago did you came from Venezuela to the United States, and a bit of the history of the trip? The journey is so many miles from South America to the United States.

RUBEN: [translated] Well, yes, it’s a bit complicated, the situation, not just most of us Venezuelans, but also people from many other parts of Latin America. It is a very heavy journey. Many don’t come from Venezuela but live in places that are even further away than Venezuela. Crossing through the Darién Gap is a very heavy experience. It, I think, was useful for me. I think it made me a stronger person. But for others, sadly, many were unable to get out alive. Others are still in the Darién jungle trying to resolve their situation, trying to figure out how to get out of there. And then one must cross through seven more countries after coming out of the Darién jungle. Many people come without money. They go from bus to bus. Others are walking. And it is a very heavy journey.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] And when did you come to New York? And have you been able to get work to support yourself?

RUBEN: [translated] I have come to the United States about three months ago. I’ve been in New York for about two-and-a-half months, I think. The truth is, it’s been a bit difficult for me in terms of work, for, thus far, I don’t have a work permit, and it’s very tough to get work here in New York without a work permit. They will hire you for three hours or for two hours, for a short period of time, and they don’t pay us all the same. In terms of what they’ve paid me, well, it’s really not been enough for anything. I’ve not been able to get a stable job so far, which is what I want, which is what we all want, to get a stable job and be able to stay. But to get a job where we work for three days and then we’re fired, and then where we work for five days and we get dismissed once again, and this because we don’t have a work permit.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruben, I wanted to ask how old you are.

RUBEN: [translated] I’m 22 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you describe what happened on Sunday at the Watson? Tell us when you were evicted, what you were told. And then, can you talk about the tour that the commissioner, New York City Commissioner Castro, took you and other asylum seekers on of this Brooklyn terminal facility, where they want to put you now?

RUBEN: [translated] Well, it was somewhat desperate news. They really should have given us more lead time for us to be able to get ourselves situated and to just know what that place is like, so that each person would know what they would do, would have thought things through. But it was news that we got just one week ahead of time. And so, for us, for many of us who don’t have work, it gets complicated, because we don’t know or don’t have anywhere to go, don’t have money to rent a place.

Others, the majority, have been able to get work in Manhattan. Now, sadly, they have to be transferred to Brooklyn. Many are going to have to give up their jobs. Many of us lost our jobs once again. We’re in the street once again, starting from scratch. And yesterday, yes, I went with the commissioner, and he took us to Brooklyn, and he showed us around to show us how everything is, what the situation is like there, what our decision was.

And for my part, well, it’s not that we can’t just sleep anywhere. The only thing is, we want to be treated like human beings, a place where we can stay. It doesn’t matter if they put 20 of us or 30 of us there, but so long as we can sleep comfortably, not in the conditions that are in Brooklyn. The bathrooms are not in very good shape. Some of the bathrooms are inside, others on the outside where the showers are. He said he was going to put a soccer field there. It’s not that we don’t want recreation, but we’ve come to the United States to work.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] I want to ask you — the city says it’s going to use the hotel for families instead of single men. Well, and obviously, they’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of people. More than 4,000 have come in the last year. How do you think that the city is responding to this crisis?

RUBEN: [translated] On the one hand, we cannot demand anything, because we’ve come here to work. We have to thank God, and thanks to the United States and to New Yorkers who are giving us their support and who have given us the opportunity, however it might be, but have given us support in terms of being able to stay. People have offered food. Now, in terms of food, we really don’t demand any big deal in terms of food. But if I’m going to give someone else food, then I need to make sure that that food is healthy, that it’s in proper condition. If it’s not, then to avoid any problems, it might be best to just throw it out. This has happened in many cases. They really should have taken note of it.

And as to the Watson, they just evict us because there were rooms there for two people. Now, for my own part, one sees there’s children and families coming in. But two men in one room, well, we were like families, as well. We are human beings. And the fact that it’s two of us men doesn’t mean we can’t be a family, as well. We can be a family, as well. And there were many things that happened at the hotel. Everything was pretty much at peace. I don’t know why they made this decision to send us to that place at this time. They really should have sought another place. It doesn’t matter in terms of the exact conditions, but somewhere at least where it wouldn’t be so cold. They placed us by a lake during the cold part of the year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] And, Ruben, in terms of the decision to come to the United States, to leave Venezuela, and your need to leave Venezuela, what do you think today about your decision?

RUBEN: [translated] Well, for my part, I made the decision to leave Venezuela because of my dream, because I am a young person. I was unable to complete my studies in Venezuela due to the economic crisis. And seeing as I was unable to help my family and in light of a number of situations I was going through, I decided to leave Venezuela to have a better future.

Now here we, on coming to the United States — well, there was an agreement whereby they would help — if there were an agreement whereby they would help us get a work permit, I don’t think any of this would be happening, because no one likes to depend on another person or not being able to let another person into the room that is assigned to you. Well, no one would like that. And if they could help us out with our work permit, then each person would become independent.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you actually take us on that journey? You left Venezuela. And then, tell us each country you went through and how you made it into the United States and how long this journey took.

RUBEN: [translated] Well, thanks to God, I had the resources from my sisters who are in Chile. They were able to help me out with the tickets.

DESIREE JOY FRÍAS: [translated] Your blood sisters?

RUBEN: [translated] Yes, my blood sisters. They helped me out. And so, thanks to God, it wasn’t so complicated for me, because I had my sisters’ help. And whenever I ran out of money, they would send me more. But there were others who really didn’t have anything, and, sadly, they had to walk.

I went on a bus from Venezuela to Colombia. In Colombia, that’s where one goes into the Darién jungle, which is along the border between Colombia and Panama. And then, from Panama, I went to Guatemala, I think — no, from Panama to Nicaragua, and then from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and then here to the United States.

At the border in Texas, I crossed the Rio Grande with a group of about 30 people. I gave like $3,000 in cash to the Mexicans so that they could cross me. And, indeed, they stole all my belongings. Apart from me — in addition to what I paid them, they stole the other little bit of money I had left over, the telephone, everything. I had nothing, but at least I was able to cross into the United States, thanks to God, with my life.

And on the other side, the U.S. military forces were awaiting us. Then, there they took us. We were sitting for about three hours, while migrants and more migrants kept arriving. And then they transferred us to a center similar to the one that they’re sending us to now.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, did you get on a bus from Texas that the governor sent you to New York?

RUBEN: [translated] Well, there, where the — they were saying there were flights, or one could go in bus or by plane. And I imagine that was paid for by the mayor of Texas. As I was saying, thanks to the help of my sisters, I was able to make a contact, and I was given the ticket. A family member of mine bought the ticket. I traveled from Texas to here, to New York.

Well, in terms of coming to New York, well, immigration gave me a piece of paper that told me where I had to arrive here in New York, at an apartment where I had to stay. I arrived. I went to where they told me to. They didn’t give me any answer. They said, no, that they had taken that away; they had transferred it to some other place. And so I had to sleep in New York for four or five days with five friends I have. I have for four or five other friends. We all had to sleep outside the restaurants and so forth, because we didn’t know anything. That’s where they sent us to a shelter where we’re mixed with all kinds of other people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] And can you talk about whether you’ve seen, or whether you’ve been offered here in New York, any government agencies offering to take you elsewhere, offering tickets to go to Canada or elsewhere?

RUBEN: [translated] Yes, yes. They’re paying for those tickets, yes, to any place in the United States you want to go.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [translated] And many people in agreement with going elsewhere if they don’t like it here in New York or if they think the city is not providing adequate services?

RUBEN: [translated] The thing is, it’s not that we don’t like New York, because there’s no problem with not getting help. If one needs housing help, one might be able to get it. We don’t really want help with housing and so forth. What we really want is help getting our work permits. We can lift ourselves up. We don’t want to have to depend on anybody to get ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruben, did anyone get forced to go on the buses to the Brooklyn terminal?

RUBEN: [translated] Many got on because of fear, because the problem is there’s fear because they don’t know where to go, what might happen and so on. And what he had told me, that I didn’t answer the question I didn’t answer, in terms of leaving New York. If we go, we go because we’re obligated to go. We’re forced out because we’re not getting any help with the work permit or with any way to get work. So, for my part, I see that we’re forced to go elsewhere and to spread out.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of our interview this week with Ruben, an asylum seeker evicted from a New York City hotel, and Desiree Joy Frías, a community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid.

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