New York City opens tent shelter for bussed-in asylum seekers

Emergency centre aims to house about 500 single men, many of them from Venezuela, amid Republican bussing campaign.

Inside tent shelter
The Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center is designed to process and temporarily house migrants arriving from other states, on Randall's Island in New York City [David 'Dee' Delgado/Reuters]

New York City has opened an emergency tent shelter to house an influx of asylum seekers being bussed into the city by the Republican leaders of Texas and other US states in advance of critical midterm elections early next month.

The first arrivals were brought on Wednesday to the Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center on Randall’s Island, which will serve as a temporary home for 500 single migrant men, according to the city.

The asylum seekers were dropped off in New York City after long journeys that began in Venezuela and other countries south of the United States border with Mexico, which has seen an increase in arrivals in recent months.

They were bussed in as part of a high-profile campaign by Republican governors seeking to put a spotlight on the record number of border crossings. Rights advocates have slammed the buses as an inhumane political stunt.

Spartan and utilitarian, the New York City shelter includes cots, laundry facilities, a dining hall and phones for residents to make international calls.

“The history of this country has always been tied to welcoming those who are fleeing harm,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a video posted on Twitter on Wednesday about the facility.

“New York City has always been a role model on how to effectively use our infrastructure to address a crisis and make sure we treat people in a humane way and that is what we have done,” he added.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, in April began bussing asylum seekers to democratic-run cities, including New York City, Washington, DC, and Chicago, in protest of President Joe Biden’s border policies.

Abbott, who is seeking a third term in November’s US midterms, has said the campaign aims to share the burden of hosting asylum seekers.

So far, he has bussed more than 3,000 migrants to New York City, while the city of El Paso, which sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico, has bussed roughly 7,000 migrants to New York City since late August.

The influx has put a strain on New York City’s shelter system, leading officials to look for other places to house people and propose the temporary tent facilities. Migrant families with children are being housed in a hotel.

Two weeks ago, Adams declared a state of emergency in response to the influx, saying the city had received more than 17,000 migrants since April. New York City’s homeless shelter system also is bursting with more than 63,300 residents, officials said.

While the shelters house fewer families than before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of single men has soared since the spring, largely because of the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. More than 20,000 single adults were housed in the shelter system on Monday, up 23 percent from the nightly average in July.

Inside tent
A gaming and television lounge at the Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center [David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Reuters]

With three weeks until the midterm elections that will determine which party will control the Senate, immigration has become a hot-button topic, with a particular focus on the handling of the US-Mexico border.

Amid a sharp rise in the number of Venezuelan nationals arriving, the Biden administration last week announced a plan that will see most Venezuelan asylum seekers trying to enter the US at the country’s southern border sent back to Mexico.

Meanwhile, New York city’s plan is to bring single men to the emergency facility after they arrive at the main Manhattan bus terminal and to house them there for a period of days while determining the next steps, officials said.

Randall’s Island is located in the waters between the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. Five bridges connect it to the three boroughs, and the city’s subway system is a bus ride or walk away.

“We needed a different type of operation that gave us the time and space to welcome people, provide them a warm meal, shower, a place to sleep, to understand their medical needs, to really then work with them to figure out what their next step is going to be,” said Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol.

The white, plastic-walled tents include a space where migrants can meet with case workers to determine their next steps, as well as a recreational room with televisions, video games and board games. They are also heated.

In the sleeping area, row upon row of green cots stretch out, each one with a pillow, some sheets and a blanket, and some towels. The city said it will be able to double the sleeping capacity of the tents, if needed.

Similar types of tents have been used as temporary shelters in other places, like the southern US border. In recent years, the Biden administration and that of former President Donald Trump have come under criticism for the conditions in some tents, including overcrowding.

The tents were initially planned for a far-off corner of the Bronx, but were moved after concerns about flooding and criticism from immigrant advocates over the remote location. Iscol said the Randall’s Island location was safe from flooding.

Advocates said they remain concerned even with the new location, however, questioning what conditions migrants will face and whether they will get adequate support.

Kathryn Kliff, a lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, said it was unclear what kind of oversight would be maintained at the centre, which is not part of the city’s homeless shelter system and therefore does not fall under the same court-ordered rules as some of the shelters.

Others questioned why migrants were in tents at all, instead of in buildings such as hotels.

Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement that opening the tent centre was “a stain on our city’s rich history of welcoming immigrants and morally reprehensible”.

“To continue ignoring the calls from advocates and other city officials to utilise alternative and more appropriate housing options, and instead begin implementing this dangerous plan, Mayor Adams has compromised New York City’s status as a beacon of hope,” Awawdeh said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies