Thousands of asylum-seekers are pouring into New York City amid a national political battle over immigration — but as hundreds arrive in Staten Island they’re landing in the crosshairs of another ideological fight playing out locally.
Mayor Eric Adams announced this week that new emergency shelters would soon be coming to communities across the five boroughs. In the meantime, migrants are being housed in shelters and empty hotels.
In the West Shore neighborhood of Travis, where two-thirds of voters backed Donald Trump, the transfer of migrants to three little-used hotels has divided the close-knit community. The arrival of roughly 600 asylum-seekers from Latin America has fostered suspicion, acts of compassion and a familiar refrain in the city’s most conservative borough: That they’ve been forgotten by City Hall.
For the last 10 days, the owners of Verde’s Pizza & Pasta House have been delivering free pies to the recently arrived migrants in the hotels, as well as offering leftovers to those who wander into the store. In response, some residents have threatened to boycott the shop, accusing them of supporting a migrant “invasion.”
At a community board meeting on Tuesday, Verde’s owner Sam Bongiovanni sought to assure his neighbors that his political views aligned with the community.
“We want everyone to understand that we are Republicans and we don’t like the border policy,” he said. “But these are family people. When we fed them, they acted like they hadn’t eaten in two days.”
The following night, volunteers passed out bananas and blankets to a line of asylum-seekers outside a block of hotels in Travis. Traffic whizzed by on the nearby expressway, as a gaggle of children bounced a ball in the hotel parking lot.
In the distance, resident Karen Prisinzano discreetly filmed the scene. She uploaded the footage to the Travis Neighborhood Watch, a Facebook group where residents keep close tabs on the migrants.
In recent days, members of the Facebook group have frequently shared photos of asylum-seekers moving around the neighborhood, often underdressed in flip-flops and T-shirts. “This area is becoming a wasteland,” Prisinzano lamented to the group.
Reached by phone, she said her comments did not represent the view of her employer, Project Hospitality, which is currently working with the city to provide support for migrants.
“I have to look out for the safety of my family,” she said.
Among some residents, discussions of migrants quickly devolved into conspiracy-laced warnings of crime. Several people told Gothamist they believed the migrants were violent convicts released from Venezuelan prisons – a common right-wing talking point without any factual basis.
After the New York Post reported that migrants were going door-to-door seeking assistance and work, some Staten Islanders said they were buying security cameras or considering hiring private security. In recent days, a group of men sporting Make America Great Again apparel had begun unofficial patrols, according to one resident.
“They’re doing that to antagonize people,” said Clara Cassel, a resident of Travis originally from Puerto Rico. “I'm probably the minority here when it comes to helping people.”
The NYPD did not respond to requests about crime reports in the neighborhood. But weekly data released by the department shows that robberies in the precinct that includes Travis are down compared to last year.
Some say the arrival of the migrants in Staten Island has been met with a lack of city assistance.
Wendy Neuhalfen, a Staten Island resident who has dropped off food and clothing at the hotels in recent days, said the migrants had been essentially left to fend for themselves in a neighborhood without a grocery store or accessible public transit.
Several residents, she said, complained about the lack of meals in the hotels, which have microwaves but lack kitchens.
“They’re left alone here,” she said. “They have nothing.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said the agency was committed to providing healthy food, regular meal services, and adequate nutrition for each migrant.
A nearby Catholic church, Our Lady of Pity, is not accepting donations for the migrants, raising suspicion among some residents that the church does not want to be seen as political.
The church confirmed to Gothamist it was not making efforts on behalf of the asylum-seekers, even as Catholic Charities run by the Archdiocese of New York continues to be among the organizations most involved in assisting new arrivals.
The subject has also emerged as a wedge issue for the borough’s congressional race between Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis and her Democratic challenger, Max Rose. On Thursday, Malliotakis held a protest blaming President Joe Biden for the “manufactured” border crisis. Malliotakis, the daughter of a Cuban refugee who fled the country following the rise of Fidel Castro, has pointed to Venezuela’s government as a boogeyman for socialism.
Officials at the protest repeatedly accused the city of overburdening them with migrants, echoing a long-standing complaint about homeless shelters in the borough. According to City Hall, Staten Island has received just 4% of the asylum-seekers currently living in city shelters.
At the end of the day, I think pizza is for everyone, and I think we should all try to help one another when we can.
Approached by Gothamist, several migrants said through a translator they were instructed not to speak about their stays at the hotel.
The mayor’s office did not respond to additional questions, including requests for a breakdown by neighborhood, and information about how long the migrants were expected to stay.
Gene Guerra, the president of the Travis Civic Association, said housing migrants in Travis for any amount of time was too long.
“The natives are getting restless, I can tell you that,” Guerra said. “Travis is a beautiful community, a patriotic community. It may not stay like that for long.”
Meanwhile, Bongiovanni, the pizza shop owner, said he would continue to serve pies to hungry migrants – and urged his fellow neighbors to join him in helping the population.
“If we stick together and do problem solving instead of finger-pointing, we’ll all be a lot better,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think pizza is for everyone, and I think we should all try to help one another when we can.”