Staten Island Anti-Migrant Protesters Celebrate Victory on Fire Code Technicality

For the past month, anti-migrant activists in New York’s Staten Island have been tormenting asylum-seekers residing in a temporary shelter there, strobing fluorescent lights into their windows, repeatedly honking their car horns, blasting “You’re Not Welcome” in Spanish over deafening loudspeakers, and heckling new arrivals. 

On Monday morning, the architects of those ugly scenes were handed a huge victory: New York’s Fire Department issued a vacate order to the temporary facility after finding that it lacked sprinklers and fire alarms, placing residents in “imminent peril” in violation of the city’s fire hazard code. 

And now, anti-migrant activists elsewhere in the country, including Chicago and Massachusetts, are reaching out to their Staten Island counterparts seeking tips on how to run asylum-seekers out of their neighborhoods. 

“A number of places across the country have reached out to us,” said John Tabacco, one of the lead organizers in Staten Island. “They’re asking what’s the blueprint, what’s the model. So we’re actively making a ‘how-to’ for like-minded people.” 

News chopper footage on Monday morning showed asylum seekers, including women and children, exiting St. John’s Villa Academy, a former Catholic school, with their luggage, and boarding buses. (At an earlier demonstration, some protesters had inaccurately insisted that the residents of the facility were entirely “military-aged men.”) It’s unclear where the nearly 200 people will be relocated to. 

Local congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis, whose constituents include Staten Islanders, celebrated the development, saying, “we hope this is the beginning of New York City putting the needs and desires of our citizens and our community first." 

The closure of that facility—and possible closure of at least half a dozen others across all five boroughs—will likely wreak havoc in City Hall, where officials have been scrambling to accommodate the some 130,000 asylum seekers and migrants who have arrived in New York City since spring 2022, nearly half of whom are from Venezuela, a country the U.S. has says is undergoing a “severe humanitarian emergency”.

Staten Island has become the epicenter of an anti-immigration movement that’s been closely watched by the fringe and far-right nationwide. While the vast majority of New Yorkers have been relatively nonplussed about vacant buildings being transformed into shelters for asylum seekers, a loud contingent of residents in Staten Island—the city’s deep-red Trump-supporting enclave—erupted in opposition. 

Organizers like Tabacco say that New York needs to spend its money addressing its own problems, like homelessness, before trying to accommodate asylum-seekers. Protesters at a recent demonstration, in interviews with VICE News, regurgitated nativist talking points, likened the influx of asylum seekers to an “invasion,” claiming baselessly that they would steal jobs and commit violent crimes. The broad consensus from economists and historians, however, is that immigration revitalizes local economies in the long-term. This may be particularly true in New York City, which has a long history of welcoming immigrants and is currently facing a labor shortage as it still tries to bounce back economically following COVID-19. 

Tabacco, who got his start in activism via protests against COVID-19 restrictions, told VICE News that anti-migrant organizers took a “multi-pronged approach” in their efforts to get the St John’s Villa Academy facility closed down.

In addition to their noisy protests, organizers joined forces with local officials and lawyers to sue City Hall last month, claiming that the city’s decision to house asylum seekers in that particular facility was in violation of a decades-old zoning regulation for homeless shelters in residential areas. A judge ruled in their favor, ordering the facility to be vacated, but that order was stayed as City Hall mounted an appeal. 

Residents of Staten Island also bombarded various city agencies with hundreds of tips and complaints about the conditions inside the facility. “Ultimately, I believe that the efforts of Staten Islanders vociferously protesting and informing our government officials what was wrong was what caused the fire department to act,” said Tabacco. 

News of potential violations inside the building traveled quickly, he said. “Staten Island is a close-knit community. People who work for different vendors, different government agencies, who go in and out of that place, people who’ve worked there in the past, knew there wasn’t an operable sprinkler system in there, which is very dangerous,” said Tabacco. 

Now organizers’ attention turns to the remaining facility, a former nursing home in Staten Island. 

Meanwhile, some extremist groups and personalities have looked to exploit rising nativism. One relatively new group called Atlantic Nationalist Club claimed in a recent post on Telegram that they were watching as the situation in Staten Island “slowly morphs into an occupation” and accused law enforcement of facilitating “the displacement of white Americans in their own neighborhoods.” Staten Island Proud Boys have been looking to recruit, and neo-Nazi group NSC-131 have ramped up intimidation efforts against facilities housing asylum seekers in New England.


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