The Week the Migrant Backlash Turned Into Rage

From Gracie Mansion to Staten Island, protests are growing and getting ugly.

Several hundred people protested at Gracie Mansion against plans for a migrant shelter in Staten Island. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux
Several hundred people protested at Gracie Mansion against plans for a migrant shelter in Staten Island. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

Angry neighborhood residents have checked the administration of Mayor Eric Adams at virtually every turn in its attempts to find more space to shelter the ongoing influx of migrants arriving in the city. Now, in the wake of a move to place unhoused migrants in conservative bastions of Staten Island and far southern Brooklyn, City Hall is facing the possibility of a full-scale outer-borough revolt.

In the most high-profile eruption of public anger yet, hundreds of furious protesters flooded a quiet residential street in Staten Island on Monday to demand the closure of a shelter that holds barely two dozen migrants. For two hours, one speaker after another attacked Democratic lawmakers, raised the specter of the supposed threat that migrants might pose to women and children, and shook the cobwebs off the perennial demand for the borough to separate from the rest of the city.

“If you’re not going to do your job, Mr. Mayor, then let Staten Island secede,” Representative Nicole Malliotakis said to raucous applause from the crowd.

The protest came on the heels of an escalating series of combative citywide scenes over the past week as people took to the streets to protest the presence of migrants in their communities. Three arrests were made at a protest on Friday outside the shelter, and a scuffle between an anti-migrant demonstrator and counterprotesters outside Gracie Mansion on Sunday ended in five arrests, including that of Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.

The dustup outside Gracie Mansion seemed to loom large the next evening in Staten Island, where multiple speakers hailed Sliwa’s actions and the crowd cheered him like a prizefighter.

Protesters gathered near the former St. John Villa Academy, a private Catholic school that closed in 2018 and is now housing migrants. Despite a heavy NYPD presence and a line of metal barriers blocking the street leading to the site of the protest, the demonstrators seemed both anxious and eager to face the phantom threat of an attack by counterprotesters.

As the light dwindled, rumors of enemy infiltration rippled through the crowd, egged on by emcee John Tabacco, a television personality on the right-wing network Newsmax and a Staten Island native who warned that left-wing militants were stalking the crowd disguised as reporters. When a lone heckler did show up to mock the protest, several demonstrators took swings at him until police escorted the man to safety. A few minutes later, another commotion nearly started a stampede.

“It’s antifa!” someone next to me cried.

I headed to the outskirts of the rally to see what was happening, following a group of mostly male protesters and a handful of uniformed NYPD officers. But when we reached the base of the hill, all was quiet with no challengers in sight. Some of the self-appointed defenders seemed deflated.

“I really wanna fight,” one teenage boy said to a friend.

In the year-plus since Texas governor Greg Abbott sent the first busload of migrants to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, more than 107,300 migrants and asylum seekers have passed through intake centers here, with 59,400 migrants currently in shelters operated by the city. Housing them in shelters, as required by law, continues to present one of the most vexing challenges of Adams’s tenure. From the beginning, state and city officials have struggled to find locations to house the migrants, bringing forth one ill-considered short-term fix after another, including a tent complex built on floodplains near Orchard Beach and a proposal to house migrants at a facility on Rikers Island. Newcomers, meanwhile, have resorted to sleeping on the street outside a reception center at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown.

Last week, the city unveiled its plans to house migrants at both St. John Villa Academy and Floyd Bennett Field, at the far southern tip of Brooklyn, prompting howls of outrage from locals.

In Brooklyn, lawmakers from both parties loudly denounced the plans to bring migrants to the airfield, calling it “disrespectful” and unsafe. And in Staten Island, local politicos and one homeowner filed suit against the planned shelter. A judge initially blocked its opening, but an appellate court overruled the decision, clearing the way for migrants to begin arriving on Friday.

The Staten Island shelter, operated by the city’s Office of Emergency Management, has a capacity of up to 300 people, though as of Wednesday afternoon, only 22 were staying there, according to a City Hall spokesperson. It was unclear how many, if any, people were staying there on Monday evening, but according to Tabacco, the protest emcee, the demonstrations outside had made it clear that migrants are not welcome. “The report is they’re going back to the processing center and saying, ‘We don’t wanna go there,’” he said, prompting a raucous cheer from the crowd.

Staten Islanders are not alone in their fight against the placement of migrants in their neighborhoods. In early August, residents of the typically liberal Upper West Side — among them, Lady Gaga’s dad — complained to the New York Post that migrants sheltered at the Stratford Arms Hotel have been violating the leafy peace and quiet to which they were accustomed. And in March, parents rallied outside P.S. 17 in Williamsburg to protest the mayor’s plan to house migrants in the school gym.

The level of rage and fear on display Monday might have been an escalation from previous protests that were pursued with more tact in liberal areas of the city, but it is also arguably a barometer of a more pervasive fear of migrants, who continue to arrive by the thousands, as well as anger at the mayor’s handling of the crisis. In a recent poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, 82 percent of respondents said the influx of migrants to the city was “serious,” with 54 percent calling it “very serious.”

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Eli Valentin, founder of the think tank Institute Latino. “The crisis has pushed this administration to the edge, and they’re just trying to see what would work, which has led to even more catastrophic decisions.”

If the crisis continues to dominate headlines and spark protests in conservative bastions, it could have implications beyond City Hall. In 2021, control of the House of Representatives hinged — and turned in favor of the GOP — in part on New York voters electing Republican candidates in the name of public safety. “Next year, when we look at certain State Legislature seats and congressional seats up for grabs, this will be the key issue,” Valentin predicted. “The implications are national.”

Representatives of the mayor have used the rising tide of anger to underscore his insistence that state and federal officials should take the lead in providing housing and other resources to migrants and asylum seekers. “New Yorkers are weary of bearing the brunt of this national crisis, and we empathize with their concerns,” mayoral spokesperson Kayla Mamelak told reporters on Monday. “But let’s be clear: This situation demands a broader state and national solution.”

The protesters, meanwhile, were unmoved by this declaration of empathy from City Hall.

“He is a narcissist,” said one speaker at the rally. “And nothing would humiliate a narcissist more than to be a one-term mayor.”

Adams was less diplomatic the next day. At an unrelated press conference at City Hall, he snapped at reporters when asked about the protest and singled out Sliwa, who has often mocked the mayor as “the Swagger Man with No Plan.’’

“If you look in the dictionary for the word buffoon, tell me what picture comes up,” Adams said.

This post has been updated.

The Week the Migrant Backlash Turned Into Rage