New York City built a migrant tent camp on a remote former airfield. Then winter arrived

New York City built a migrant tent camp on a remote former airfield. Then winter arrived © Provided by The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press

NEW YORK (AP) — When New York City officials erected a sprawling tent complex on a remote former airport in Brooklyn to house asylum-seeking migrants this fall, many of the recent arrivals and their advocates questioned the wisdom of placing thousands of people in a flood zone, miles from schools and other services, just as winter set in.

Those worries became reality this week when forecasts of a storm packing drenching rains and punishing winds forced a hasty evacuation Tuesday of the complex built on Floyd Bennett Field’s Runway 19.

Nearly 2,000 people, many of them families with children, were loaded onto city buses just as the storm hit and sent to a nearby high school, prompting school administrators to close the building and switch to remote classes for students the next day.

The situation quickly became a flashpoint in the national debate over migrants entering the country’s southern border. Conservative politicians and pundits seized on the issue, and the school received threatening phone calls. It also renewed criticism over how New York and other big cities are responding to the immigration surge, with many turning to makeshift accommodations to house the growing numbers.

Chicago, which had used police stations and airports to temporarily house migrants, is now turning to city buses as a stopgap. Migrants in Massachusetts have had to bed down in airport lounges, hospital waiting rooms and churches. Earlier this week, New York City began enforcing 60-day limits for migrant families on stays in city shelters, many of which are converted hotels in midtown Manhattan.

Luis Lopez, a 40-year-old from Ecuador who has been living at the Brooklyn camp for nearly a month, said his family of five slept on the floor of the school cafeteria Tuesday, only to be roused in the middle of the night to return to the camp once the worst of the high winds had passed.

After the ordeal, Lopez said he let his three exhausted children skip school, which is nearly a hour’s drive from the encampment.

“It was a little adventure,” he said in Spanish with a weary shrug the next day.

But it wasn’t just the migrants and their advocates grumbling.

Local politicians and parents in the relatively suburban, southeastern corner of Brooklyn — about 25 miles from midtown Manhattan — held a protest the next day in front of the school, irate that students were forced to switch to remote learning to accommodate the migrants. The school itself received “hate calls” and a bomb threat, officials said Wednesday.

Prominent conservatives pointed to the incident to suggest the needs of foreign migrants were being prioritized over American children. Entrepreneur Elon Musk posted to his more than 168 million followers on his social media platform X that after cities run out of schools, “they will come for your homes.”

But critics and many migrants agree the city needs to find a better solution than the current setup at Floyd Bennett Field.

“We warned about this. Floyd Bennett Field is susceptible to flooding, storms, winds,” New York City Councilor Inna Vernikov, a Republican who represents the area, said in video posted on X this week. “It’s not an acceptable place to house people, but neither are public schools.”

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration announced the opening of the tent facility in mid-October, saying the city was “past its breaking point” with more than 170,000 migrants arriving since the crisis began in 2022.

Located on Jamaica Bay, between seaside Coney Island and Rockaway Beach, Floyd Bennett Field was New York’s first airport and later served as a naval station during World World II.

The migrant complex, which has been closed to the media since migrants moved in, includes two large tents for bedrooms, a lounge tent and a dining tent filled with rows of long plastic tables and folding chairs.

Rooms are semi-enclosed, with wall partitions but no ceiling, according to videos and images provided by residents and their advocates. There is no furniture in the rooms, which are just large enough to fit the beds. Bathrooms and showers are in trailers outside the tents.

Yeisi Chirinos, a 25-year-old from Venezuela with three young children, says the beds aren’t even mattresses, but cots that aren’t comfortable and are easy for small children to tumble off.

Chirinos also worries about the site’s remote location. If one of her children gets sick and needs something from the pharmacy, for example, she would need to head into the neighborhood center a few miles away.

“This isn’t an acceptable place for a family,” Chirinos said in Spanish as she trekked home from a shopping mall late Wednesday. “The city needs to move us somewhere else.”

Andres Sanchez, a 34-year-old from Colombia, said he never envisioned spending winter in a tent after making the harrowing overland journey through the Americas. But after living at the airfield for more than a month with his wife and three young children, he remained upbeat.

“The conditions aren’t great, but it’s not worse than sleeping in the street,” Sanchez said in Spanish as he stood outside the gates of the camp Wednesday afternoon. “We have a place to live and sleep and eat, and for that, we are thankful.”

Among the chief safety concerns when the makeshift shelter was erected was that the airfield’s white tent structures are only anchored to the runway by cement blocks. The city wasn’t allowed to fasten them to the ground with stakes because of the site’s federal historic designation.

Zachary Iscol, Adams’ emergency management commissioner, stressed after Tuesday’s storm that the administration has long known the makeshift airfield encampment would be tested as winter arrived in earnest.

City officials, he noted, weighed evacuating the camp at least three times ahead of potentially extreme weather events.

“All of us in the city understand that Floyd Bennett Field is not an ideal place to be housing families with children,” Iscol said Wednesday. “This is what was given to us. It was provided by the state and federal government, and it’s fallen on our shoulders to make and to make it safe.”

Lopez, the migrant father from Ecuador, suggested that some of the complaints from residents are overblown, even as he conceded he shared their concerns about the facility’s ability to withstand the weather.

During recent storms, he said, the sound of rain pounding on the roof echoed loudly inside the tent and the bitter coastal winds rattled the structure’s white outside covering, which is held up by a metal frame.

“The children, they don’t worry. They’re happy. They can sleep through anything,” Lopez said. “But I don’t. I stay awake because I worry.”

Izaguirre reported from Albany. Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

Source: Philip Marcelo And Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press