A few miles from where the Statue of Liberty, famed greeter of millions who immigrated here by ship in prior generations, still stands, some local electeds, politicos, protesters, and residents continue speaking out or trading rumors and jabs (or in some cases not saying much at all) on the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants in our area this year.
In recent weeks, public responses to asylum seekers and migrants’ arrival in the New York City metropolitan region have increased, and in some cases escalated.
On Staten Island, for example, where frequent rally organizers Curtis Sliwa and Scott Lobaido have brought out critics of sheltering migrants, the New York Police Department (NYPD) recently arrested ten people who were attempting to block and banging on a bus transporting asylum seekers. The asylum seekers were headed to the former Island Shores Beach building, one of many disused buildings in NYC that have been converted for short-term shelter. According to the NYPD, ten people were arrested for disorderly conduct, and one person was additionally charged with assaulting a police officer during an arrest.
In the weeks prior to that, asylum seekers temporarily residing at another Staten Island shelter have had to face not only regular protests but also, as the Associated Press reported, “a message, recorded in six languages, [that] blares all day from a loudspeaker on Scott Herkert’s well-groomed front lawn on Staten Island, exhorting migrants to ‘go back’ to another part of the city because the community doesn’t want them.”
Meanwhile, Sliwa and others have continued to host rallies at Creedmoor and Floyd Bennett Field against providing publicly funded shelter for any homeless migrants, whether they’re the border-vetted asylum seekers arriving by bus at Humanitarian Emergency Relief and Response Centers (HERRCs), like the one at Creedmoor, or have otherwise walked or flown here to pursue another path toward legal residence. As an alternative, Sliwa has at times suggested that migrants could be housed on Rikers Island, home to a notorious network of jails that is legally required to close by 2027; speaking this summer outside a Toys R’ Us in Brooklyn, Sliwa followed up that suggestion by stating that he himself has experienced pre-trial incarceration on Rikers, before bellowing, “I FEAR NO MAN! Or woman.”
In our area, State Assemblyman Ed Ra recently called for a special session “to address the intensifying migrant crisis that has seen more than 100,000 migrants arrive in our state over the past year,” according to a press release.
“Our urgent call for this special session is a consequence of inaction by our state leaders and passivity of the federal government,” Ra said. “My colleagues and I have introduced proposals that will alleviate undue pressure on our education and court systems, housing industry and capabilities of community service providers. We have proposals that will address growing public safety concerns, as well as Mayor Adams’ inflating costs for migrant shelters and services, which he now estimates to reach $12 billion.”
“We have been asking and advocating for these actions for several months—it’s time to address the migrant issue head-on. An extraordinary session must be convened to compensate for the lack of action by Democratic leadership in Albany and Washington and take steps to implement long-delayed solutions.”
In late August, State Senator Jack Martins also weighed in during a press conference outside the Long Island Rail Road station at Floral Park.
“The self-inflicted migrant crisis has been a disaster for communities across our state. Rather than address it, Democrats in Albany continue to insist on New York’s sanctuary status and won’t raise a finger to push sealing the border. They’d rather give away parks and schools to gatecrashers than protect our communities and enforce the law,” Martins said.
Ra, political hopeful Mike Sapraicone, and other Republicans also broadly roasted the suggestion made by Queens boro president Donovan Richards, perhaps rhetorically, that the Nassau Coliseum property could be used to shelter asylum seekers, too.
For his part, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has already imposed a 60-day limit on city-provided shelter for single adult homeless asylum seekers, and as of this writing was considering adding a 30-day limit for persons who re-enter the shelter system, as well as some kind of time limit for families seeking asylum.
On both Long Island and Staten Island, religious coalitions have been among the loudest voices speaking up on behalf of sheltering asylum seekers, as well as other homeless migrants.
By mid-September, more than 165 faith leaders in Nassau and Suffolk had signed a letter to the Nassau and Suffolk County Executives and Legislatures, which some members of activist and religious communities have been taking on a tour of sorts at local town board meetings.
The letter, also addressed to supervisors and board members of the Towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Huntington, Babylon, Smithtown, Islip, Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton, Easthampton, Southold and Shelter Island reads as follows:
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.” [Deuteronomy 24:17-18]
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” [Matthew 25:35]
The Holy Qur’an repeatedly requires the faithful to comply with agreements and treaties on the rights of refugees, praising those who go to the assistance of people in distress and requiring the faithful to protect them [9:100 and 117], including non-Muslims, by providing amam (safeguard).
We, the undersigned, are an interfaith community of clergy and lay leaders, and the mandates in our traditions could not be clearer. As people representing many faith traditions, we profess the full humanity and dignity of all people, all created in the Spirit of Life’s image. Our sacred texts mandate love, hospitality and a commitment to love our neighbor, with a strong emphasis — literally scores of scriptural mandates — on welcoming the stranger, sojourners from another land.
In recent years, 68 million people worldwide have fled their homes seeking safety. Children account for more than half of this total. Families requesting safety at our borders are fleeing economic exploitation, organized crime, political repression, war, and sexual violence, much of it rooted in disruptions caused by climate disasters and political destabilization. Recent reports indicate that current asylum seekers also include those who have fled Afghanistan after providing assistance to the United States, whose lives now would be in danger at home. Any of us would ask for refuge for our families if faced with the same threats.
Many U.S. towns and cities, including Nassau and Suffolk Counties—consistent with our nation’s foundational ideal to be a place where people come for safety and freedom—have long been welcoming, housing, and employing our immigrant neighbors as they await their court asylum hearings. Houses of worship and non-profits provide care, critical support services, and community. Together as Long Islanders, we can continue (with essential government support and partnerships on the federal, state and local levels) to honor the core values of our diverse faiths and our nation by being a community of welcome.
Unfortunately, some Long Island officials have done just the opposite: inflaming tensions and fears by issuing irresponsible calls to bar asylum seekers from our towns and counties, despite the fact that under both U.S. and International law these asylum seekers are guaranteed the right to seek asylum.
Such rhetoric is especially disheartening considering that during the height of the pandemic, lives were literally saved by essential workers, many of whom are immigrants. They cared for our elderly and disabled family members, planted, harvested and delivered our food, cleaned our public spaces, and much more. While some of us were locked down in our homes, immigrant workers were laboring to strengthen Long Island and our communities.
Our sacred scriptures insist that “neighbor” is never defined as proximity or nationality.
Any rejection and resentment of the Spirit of Life’s children is a betrayal of our values, and a betrayal of the Spirit of Life.
We lament the crises of violence, environmental disaster, war, and poverty that cause families to leave their homes and lands in search of safety and asylum; we call for serious attention to fixing our broken immigration system; and we pray for just national and global policies and for the healing of a broken world — a prayer for Tikkun olam — so that all people might have the opportunity to find safety and welcoming in our country, our state, and in our Long Island communities. This is who we are as people of faith.