A handful of migrants who have been camped outside a Midtown hotel since Sunday night agreed to tour a 1,000-bed relief center in Red Hook and report back to the group sleeping outside regarding conditions there on Tuesday afternoon. Upon their return, they said the facility did not meet their expectations.
The group had reached a tentative agreement with city officials from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and other agencies earlier in the day after several hours of negotiations, during which city officials attempted to cajole the men to come indoors.
MOIA Commissioner Manuel Castro said he’d be riding with the migrants, eating lunch with them and answering any questions they might have about the facility that recently opened at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
“The most important thing for us is to battle the misinformation that’s being spread because it’s not helpful for anyone,” he said. “No one is being detained, [or] forcefully removed.”
Shortly after noon, several migrants agreed to board an MTA bus to the facility with Castro and other city representatives.
“We wanted to go to verify what they’re saying,” explained Ivan Pereira in Spanish. Pereira, a Venezuelan migrant, was helping to organize the group of protesters. “They’re telling us they put more bathrooms, that it’s heated. We’re going to go and see. We don’t want to cause trouble – we’re looking for solutions.”
Word about conditions at the newly opened shelter had spread among migrants over the weekend. Some asylum-seekers who were relocated to the site described frigid temperatures, a lack of personal space, and bathrooms and showers that were an outdoor walk away from the main dormitories. Photos and videos of the hangar-like dormitory showed hundreds of cots lined up in rows, touching one another.
When the group got back, they relayed to those outside the Watson that what they heard about the facility was true, and decided they would remain outside until a better option was provided.
“The facility is immaculate, it’s clean. However, once we enter, we realize that we are very isolated, very isolated from people, very isolated from the downtown area, very isolated from many things,” Pereira later said in an interview. “There were many, many, many beds. There is no privacy, there is nothing… The heating is not that powerful for the site because the site is very big.”
Several dozen migrants abandoned the Brooklyn site and returned to the Watson Hotel, asking to be let back in. When they were denied re-entry, they began camping outside the building on Sunday night, along with other migrants who were later told to leave the hotel for Brooklyn but refused to go.
A scrum of migrants peppered Castro with questions about the Red Hook facility Tuesday morning, expressing worry over how far away it was from jobs they’d managed to find in Midtown and the frigid temperatures barreling down on the five boroughs later this week.
“People want to remain in their private rooms here and hotels. That’s just not sustainable,” Castro told reporters gathered outside the hotel. “Most of the asylum-seekers, they understand we need to allow families with children to use the hotels. There’s just a limit of hotel space we have in the city.”
The city has maintained it needs to clear single men out of the Watson Hotel in order to move more migrant families in. The city’s shelter system has been tested to its limits, with more than 42,000 asylum-seekers arriving since last spring.
Through Jan. 15, 26,700 of those migrants were staying in city shelters and relief centers. But immigrant and homeless advocates have criticized the city’s shuffling of migrants from location to location, and have raised concerns about mass shelters like the one in Red Hook, which is hard to get to, exposed to the elements, and could foment the spread of infectious diseases because it crowds so many people together.
As the standoff played out in front of the hotel on Tuesday morning, other men left from a side door without protest, lugging their belongings in cases and bags.
Among them was José Rivas, who said he didn’t begrudge the protesters taking a stand against the move, though he’d decided to pack up and board the bus to Red Hook.
“We’re very thankful,” Rivas said in Spanish. “Maybe we haven’t seen the other site, we don’t know what it’s like. I think we have to let it play out. We’ll arrive there, and we’ll see how it is.”
As the MTA bus pulled away from the Watson, several dozen remained outside in the chilly temperatures, burrowing back under blankets along the sidewalk, waiting for representatives of their group to return with news.
“We’re doing this, not for ourselves, but for all of us,” said Keyder Escalona in Spanish, a 28-year-old migrant from Venezuela. “It’s not a rebellion. We’re just demanding something that’s dignified for us, for everyone, as human beings. We deserve to be in a dignified place.”
This story has been updated.