A group of asylum seekers in Midtown refused to board buses heading to a pop up shelter inside Brooklyn’s Cruise Terminal Monday morning, calling it “inhumane.”
The standoff began Sunday afternoon, when migrants began returning to the Watson Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, dismayed by conditions they encountered at the 1,000-bed facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Several men who had been bused to the Red Hook facility described arriving to frigid temperatures, with no apparent heat or hot water, uncomfortable cots, no privacy and no personal space to store belongings.
By Monday morning, as word spread of the conditions at the Brooklyn facility, many migrants were refusing to leave the Midtown hotel.
On Jan. 21, the city said it needed the single men to move to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal so it can reopen the Watson to migrant families.
“I don’t want to go,” said Anthony Luna in Spanish. He had been told to pack his things early Monday for an 8 a.m. bus. “I’m not OK with this. We’re going to stay here until we find a solution.”
Several dozen migrants who were denied re-entry into the Watson Hotel slept outside the hotel Sunday night into Monday morning. They stayed in tents set up under scaffolding by activists with NYC ICE Watch and South Bronx Mutual Aid, among other local groups.
Others who returned from Brooklyn sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, keeping warm under blankets, surrounded by piles of their belongings.
“I slept here in the street because they kicked us out,” said Darwin Castillo, a 26-year-old migrant from Venezuela. “They don’t care that we’re working, they don’t care about us.”
Nelson Piñando, 33, said he, too, slept outside after being denied re-entry at the Watson Hotel.
“We need somewhere we can rest and have privacy,” he said in Spanish.
Piñando said he’d found work at a supermarket near the hotel and that it would be difficult for him to get there from the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which is far from public transit and about eight miles from the Watson Hotel. He was determined to keep his job. “None of us here want to be taken care of by anyone.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, contested some of the migrants’ claims and insisted the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal was heated and there were storage lockers available for people to keep their valuables.
Videos posted to TikTok and Twitter Sunday night captured the chaotic scene outside the Watson Hotel.
Levy blamed the commotion on local activists and said police were only called when activists tried to enter the Watson Hotel Sunday night.
“The facilities at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal will provide the same services as every other humanitarian relief center in the city, and the scheduled relocations to Brooklyn Cruise Terminal this weekend took place as planned,” Levy said. “We remain in serious need of support from both our state and federal governments.”
A spokesperson for the NYPD confirmed police were called in for crowd control at 7:40 p.m. Sunday evening though no one was arrested or detained. Police remained on the scene through Monday morning.
Desiree Joy Frías, an attorney and activist with South Bronx Mutual Aid, denied they’d started a protest. She and other activists arrived on scene Sunday to support migrants after hearing about people being denied reentry to the Watson Hotel through a WhatsApp group made up of several hundred recent arrivals to the city.
By Monday morning, several MTA buses were queued up outside the Watson waiting to shuttle migrants to Brooklyn. Some people boarded buses with suitcases and boxes of their belongings, while others vowed to stay put outside the hotel.
The limits of New York City’s shelter system have been tested over the past several months, as the city has seen an unprecedented surge of migrants arriving from the southern border: more than 42,000 since last spring, according to the mayor’s office. Through mid-January, 26,700 of those arrivals were staying in city shelters, according to the mayor’s office.
The city has attempted to keep up with the influx — opening dozens of emergency shelters in hotels, so-called Humanitarian Emergency Relief Centers, including a sprawling tent encampment on Randall’s Island that shut down last November, less than a month after it opened.
Adams recently enraged homeless advocates, insisting the city’s right to shelter protection – which guarantees shelter in New York City to anyone who seeks it – doesn’t apply to recently arrived migrants. The right to shelter protection guarantees certain minimum standards, including that beds in single adult shelters should be separated by at least three feet.
Video of the massive Brooklyn Cruise Terminal facility shared by asylum seeker José Gregorio Amarista showed beds pressed up one against each other with no space separating them.
Joshua Goldfein, a Legal Aid attorney, said he’d be monitoring the situation to see if there were legal issues with the facility. At the now-shuttered Randall’s Island facility, Goldfein said that although beds were closer to one another than legally permitted, the shelter was so sparsely used that people had enough space to themselves.
City Council Immigration Committee Chair Shahana Hanif urged the Adams’ administration to walkback its plans for the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and allow people to remain at the Watson Hotel.
“These are people, not pawns, and I condemn the administration’s actions,” she wrote in a statement. “We know that the needs of asylum seekers cannot be met in this setting. I call on the administration to abandon this model and prioritize keeping people in proper brick-and-mortar facilities.”
Jon Morillo, 54, said he was scheduled to head to Brooklyn from the Watson Hotel this week. He got word through the grapevine of conditions there and went to see the facility for himself. He was appalled. Morillo pointed to the upcoming cold front expected to bring single digit temperatures to the city by the end of the week.
“That is an area that’s inhumane for us to live,” he said in Spanish. “There’s no place to eat, or wash clothes. There’s nothing there — and it’s cold. What do they think we’re going to do? Freeze there? It’s not fair.”
This story has been updated to include the number of migrants staying in city shelters.