The influx of asylum seekers to New York City has quickly become the central issue in the race for Staten Island and Brooklyn’s 11th Congressional District — and could be a decisive factor in keeping the seat for Republicans.
The migrant issue was in the first question posed to the candidates — incumbent Rep. Nicole Malliotakis and Democratic challenger Max Rose — in a recent debate, where they largely blamed the Biden administration for not securing the U.S. borders. Malliotakis has signed letters asking for more city resources, and held news conferences across Staten Island, pressing the city and federal government to do more.
But for Rose — who lost the seat to Malliotakis in 2020 and was attacked for appearing to support Black Lives Matter protesters — the issue couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“If somebody needed another reason to come out and vote this year, the migrant issue is definitely [it],” said Peter Giunta, president of the Staten Island Young Republicans “I'm anticipating that this is going to push people out in those election districts on Staten Island.”
The crisis, which began unfolding in early spring, only started to affect Staten Island this past month when the city opened two shelters exclusively for migrants in the neighborhood of Travis. Currently, Staten Island has absorbed 4% of the total number of migrants, though that number could change if the city considers a plan to house asylum seekers in cruise ships that would be docked on the east side of the island.
“At what point is it enough where they actually just tell a president to stop this influx of illegal migration?” Malliotakis said in an interview with Gothamist. Her internal polling shows the crisis is among the top five issues among district voters, along with the economy and public safety.
“We’re gonna have every hotel in New York City become a shelter? We're gonna have a cruise ship off a harbor?” she said. “At what point do they say, ‘enough is enough’?”
Rose provided a statement to Gothamist blaming both Democrats and Republicans for politicizing the issue.
“Politicians shouldn't be able to kidnap political refugees with lies and send them across state lines, nor can we have an open border. But this kind of common sense has been sorely lacking in Washington, D.C.,” Rose said in a statement. “President Biden must provide immediate aid to NYC to alleviate the funding crisis, secure the border, and dramatically increase judicial resources so these claims can be processed quickly and fairly."
News outlet The City reported that he’s largely kept away from any outreach efforts to help the migrants.
Malliotakis — the daughter of a Cuban refugee — said Mayor Eric Adams should consider challenging the city’s right-to-shelter decree and focus it only on U.S. citizens. She criticized the actions of Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Oscar Lesser, the Democratic mayor of El Paso, in sending migrants to New York City — and noted that arriving migrants should seek a legal path to citizenship.
She echoed those points during a debate organized by the Iron Hills Civic Association on Oct. 19.
At the same debate, Rose tried to cast blame on the Biden administration saying the lack of federal funding to the city has led to a chaotic response.
“If you are going to have an immigration policy you need to have the resources backing it up for states and localities. And certainly that’s not what we’re seeing right now – New York City is certainly not getting its fair share from the federal government as it pertains to asylum seekers,” Rose said, adding that technology and personnel are needed to further secure the border.
Malliotakis countered that Rose voted against increasing funding for a border wall proposed by then-President Donald Trump while he held the seat.
Residents in the borough’s Travis neighborhood, where many of the migrants are being housed, have walked a tightrope between sympathy for the asylum seekers and outrage toward what they see as an encroachment on their quality of life. Gothamist recently reported that neighbors threatened a boycott when a local pizzeria gave free food to migrants. Even the local Catholic church has not been taking collections for the asylum seekers.
In a recent Facebook exchange between neighbors over attempts to organize a protest, local resident Veronica Gil Mannarino objected to protesting in front of the migrant shelter.
“I’d feel bad for the innocent kids. It should be by the idiot politician's house that came up with this horrible idea,” Mannarino wrote.
Another local, Sara Walsh, responded, saying the neighborhood is not equipped to handle the increased population.
“[W]e don’t know if it is safe to open our doors, they are sending the children to the door hoping people will be empathetic, but how do we know?” Walsh said. “We have no grocery, no medical, the school is already at capacity, and let’s be real, Travis is a transit desert.”
While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans on Staten Island, the borough is a conservative stronghold in blue New York City. In 2020, Rose won some western parts of the district — including Travis — but President Donald Trump won those same districts. Rose ultimately lost after serving a single term.
Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island, said the emergence of the issue now is likely to help Malliotakis.
“It’s timed really well,” Flanagan said. “The migrant issue and the movement into the hotels in Travis speaks to that sense of disorder and thus another log on the fire.”