To many, the scene that unfolded over the last week in Hell’s Kitchen was perplexing: Why would migrants sleep on a freezing sidewalk rather than accept a bed and food in Brooklyn?
The migrants’ protest, spurred by their removal from the Watson Hotel, ignited red-hot political rhetoric from all angles.
And once again, the migrants found themselves caught in a political swirl.
But the noise obscured an important reality: The thousands of migrants who have arrived over the past months are growing increasingly frustrated and angry with life in New York.
In interviews with the Daily News before the encampment was cleared, migrants at the Watson said they feel they are being treated as political pawns, shuffled from place to place and fed empty promises, while politicians battle over funding and border policy.
Last year, a showdown between Mayor Adams and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott came to a head as buses were sent from the Southern border to NYC. Now, the influx of more than 43,000 mostly Latin American migrants has become a point of contention between Adams and President Biden, as the mayor pressures the federal government for funds and resources to manage the crisis.
The standoff at the Watson Hotel stirred more controversy. The Adams administration sounded the alarm against misinformation and outside influences as cameras flocked, advocates lashed back and right-wing pundits sounded off.
But the migrants say their battle is not partisan. They say they want to work, find apartments and start new lives. Many of those at the Watson had been rehoused there after being placed at the now-shuttered Randall’s Island site. The prospect of being shipped to another remote location in Red Hook — far from transit, jobs and options — was a breaking point. The standoff outside of the hotel, migrants said, was a chance to be heard.
“We want to be treated as human beings … We are fighting to be able to work and get our lives together, to become independent,” said Ivan Pereira, a migrant from Venezuela, said as he stood outside the Watson this week. “This treatment, it isn’t right.”
Pereira is among the dozens of migrants who told the Daily News that the protest wasn’t simply about the transfer to the Red Hook facility — but about the hurdles they’ve faced in trying to create new lives for themselves in New York.
Pereira, 33, arrived in the U.S. last year. He’s been tossed around to several different NYC shelters, including the Randall’s Island site. The idea of heading back to a city Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center, or HERRC, was dismal to him.
“It is right that we come and feel comfortable and that we can start working,” Pereira said. “What we’ve been through isn’t right. They’ve sent us to Randall’s Island, where we got sick, we were cold, the food was good, but we were cold, and we were so removed over there on an island. They ended up taking us out of there for the same reason, because of the cold, many of us got sick in a short time … So they got us out and they sent us here. And now, they’re going to give us a cold place, again?”
The standoff started Sunday night, when, with half an hour’s warning, some migrants boarded the night bus to the Red Hook HERRC. Seeing the facility, many immediately turned about and went back to the hotel. As videos and pictures of the mega shelter circulated in WhatsApp group chats and through word-of-mouth, anger started to brew.
As there were kicked out of their old rooms to make way for families, they began setting up camp outside.
Since Isaac Quintero arrived from Venezuela three months ago, he’s pursued two things: An apartment and a stable job. He hasn’t been able to achieve either. Quintero hoped taking a stand by protesting would help.
Quintero, like many others at the Watson, was placed at the hotel after first being housed at the Randall’s Island tent complex, which shut down in November.
“They lied about everything,” Quintero, 21, said of the city. “They told me we’d come to the hotel and then we’d eventually get an apartment, and they’d help pay for it.”
He’s frustrated by the amount of shuffling around, which he said jeopardizes his gig as a janitor at an Upper Manhattan school.
The move to Red Hook meant yet another hurdle to establishing a new life in New York.
“We just want a dignified place to stay. This isn’t political … I want to stay here [outside the hotel], to stay here for a better solution. It’s not right, the conditions over there,” Anthony Hernandez, an immigrant from Venezuela, said.
On Wednesday, as tensions between city agencies and advocates rose and the protest attracted widespread attention, Kennedy Gonzalez grew more frustrated and dejected. He decided to leave.
Gonzalez, 37, said the migrants’ original message had gotten lost in the layers of political mess.
“Those of us who came did not come to depend on the government, on them giving us food, work, on them not moving us [from the hotel]. That’s a lie,” he said. “We have to move on. We have to work to pay our rent, our things. I’m done with the story that we can’t eat on our own or that the government is going to bring me some help. It’s a lie. You have to know how to get ahead. You have to do things with your effort and determination. Leave the responsibility to us.”
Over the course of the three days, migrants started to feel that their voice was minimized in all of it, and that — once again — they were being used as political pawns.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gonzalez leaned against the scaffolding outside the Watson and looked around. In front of him, groups of migrants huddled together, wrapped in blankets for warmth. The NYPD keeping watch prevented them from putting up tents or tarps, so migrants resorted to laying on cardboard boxes and suitcases packed with their belongings. Gonzalez removed his donated gloves, rubbed his hands together for warmth and pulled out his phone.
“You know TikTok?” he opened the app, typed in “Watson Hotel” and scrolled through videos about the standoff. He stopped on one that portrayed it as a block party. It read, “going to the Watson hotel to look for the buddies to go partying.”
“Look at what they’re saying about us … it makes me feel bad, you know? They’re saying things like, we don’t want to work.”
After the encampment was cleared and the protest was over, some questioned how much of an impact it had.
“I was there when the police arrived, the feds arrived, the garbage trucks arrived, to get us out,” Ivan Pereira said. “It was very horrible. I felt that what we did was not worth it to anyone, but here, we are strong … The strength is this — the immigrants.”
©2023 New York Daily News. Visit nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.