Migrants Are in a Harsh Spotlight in Competitive City Council Elections

Migrants Are in a Harsh Spotlight in Competitive City Council Elections

By: Gwynne Hogan and Haidee Chu / thecity.nyc

Editorial Credit: John Gomez / Shutterstock.com

The Sunset Park Recreation Center is blocks north of a newly-carved majority Asian City Council district in Brooklyn, City Council but that didn’t stop candidates Ying Tan and Susan Zhuang from holding competing rallies on a recent Sunday objecting to the use of its gym to house migrants.

Tan, a Republican, decried the lack of communication with locals from Mayor Eric Adams and the border policy of President Joe Biden, both Democrats.

Zhuang, a Democrat, held her rally hours later to demand the rec center’s building be returned to local seniors and children — even though it had been closed to the public since late June for construction.

Andrés Hernandez, a 32-year-old migrant from Venezuela staying in the gym, recalled watching the rallies with sadness.

“In my country, we have Arabs, Chinese, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and we’ve never discriminated against them,” he said in Spanish.

“None of us want to be in the situation we are now,” he continued. “I wish I was working a good job, and could rent my own apartment.”

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‘Playing Defense’

While all 51 Council seats were up for election this year, just two years after the last election because of post-Census redistricting, only a handful of races are expected to be competitive in November’s general election following June’s low-turnout primary.

But with Republicans hoping to add to their six-seat caucus, which includes one Brooklyn member who switched parties after being elected as a Democrat, this year’s general election races have been shaped by the arrival of nearly 100,000 migrants to New York City in little more than a year, and voters’ concerns and fears about them in what some observers say may be a warning sign about the party’s prospects in national and local race in 2024.

Democrats, said Yiatin Chu, President of the Asian Wave Alliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy group that pushed for the creation of the new majority Asian district, “are going to be playing defense. They have to sound like Republicans, or talk their way around it.”

Asian swing voters helped Republicans flip previously Democratic districts in parts of southern Brooklyn and northeast Queens. Asian voters tacked to the right over concerns about education, and public safety amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. The influx of migrants since then adds a new wrinkle for some of those voters, many of whom are first-generation immigrants themselves.

On Thursday afternoon, Emily Zeng, a 62-year-old immigrant from the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, stepped underneath a canopy by the entrance of the Sunset Park rec center to wait for the rain to pass.

“Of course we’d hope that someone would stand up for us and stop this from happening,” Zeng said in Cantonese, referring to the respite center, where migrants sleep on cots for what are supposed to be short-term stays before moving into better- equipped facilities.

She’d often voted for Democrats in the past including Hillary Clinton in 2016, said the area resident of more than 30 years, but added that she was increasingly frustrated with how the party’s policies had “made things chaotic and disorderly” — and feared the migrants would add to her existing concerns about neighborhood safety.

“I think the migrant crisis is going to affect how I vote,” said Zeng, who didn’t say who she planned to support in the Council race.

While concerns about crime and immigration are an age-old Republican talking point, there’s little evidence to suggest the arrival of immigrants impacts local crime rates, though the addition of hundreds of new neighborhood residents has led to tensions with the surrounding community and quality-of-life concerns.

Outside of the Sunset Park rec center days after the rallies, Masbia soup kitchen volunteers were staffing a booth offering food, clothing, and toiletries to neighborhood’s new arrivals. A mini Statue of Liberty and signs reading “welcome to Sunset Park migrants” decorated the booth.

A reporter from the far-right news network Newsmax did a standup across the plaza, while an onlooker heckled her. Cheikh Ndiaye, 26, from Senegal, heard about the rallies, wanted to know why New Yorkers had been protesting.

“We don’t want to stay here,” said Ndiaye in French. “But we have to stay here, because we have no other solution.”

‘The Litmus Test’

Concerns about the influx of asylum seekers and the city’s ability to handle them are by no means limited to Asian voters. Even before the latest surge in arrivals, a Quinnipiac  poll from February, when about 40,000 migrants had made their way here, found that most 70% of New Yorkers thought their arrival anointed to a “crisis” while just 31% thought that “New York City has the ability to accommodate the migrants seeking sanctuary.”

Protests against new migrant shelters have cropped up in deep blue districts like Williamsburg and a city commissioner, in her capacity as a youth soccer league commissioner, has been circulating a petition to block shelter tents from going up on Randall’s Island.

The day after the city announced plans to build tented shelters for 1,000 migrant men at the largely underutilized Creedmoor Psychiatric Center campus, Democratic elected officials including Councilmember Linda Lee and local civic groups and Republican clubs held another pair of dueling rallies protesting that move.

At another rally opposing the Creedmoor plan last week, Elliot, 47, said he usually voted for Democrats but hadn’t yet made up his mind this year. He noted that he’d seen Republican challenger Bernard Chow showing up more often to oppose migrants than he had Lee as the sitting Council member.

“At this point I haven’t seen politicians rise to the occasion,” said Elliot, a registered Independent who asked to be identified only by his first name. “I think this is like the litmus test.”

Over the last year, city officials have raced to open nearly 200 emergency shelters spread out across the five boroughs, for more than 57,300 homeless migrants, mostly in hotels, but also in recreation centers, vacant office buildings, gymnasiums while Mayor Eric Adams has become increasingly aggressive about the need for federal support and intervention.

“Eventually,” he said at a press conference on July 31, “this was going to come to a neighborhood near you, and it is.”

Eli Valentin, a political advisor and head of Instituto Latino, a think tank for Latino politics and policy, said he’d observed pushback growing, a year after southern governors began busing migrants to New York City and the number of arrivals began to rise.

“I have seen a tilt towards a more kind of an anti-Biden policy position, a resistance to this continued rise. That is real,” he said, adding that he believed New York City voters don’t necessarily blame Adams or local Democrats for the situation, but rather federal policies. There will be no federal officials, however, on the ballot in November.

“Especially when we look at the budget ramifications of the crisis,” Valentin said, pointing to recent cost estimates from the Adams administration that housing migrants could cost the city $12 billion by 2025, “this is gonna be something that will continue to play out.”

Where Democrats need to balance their support for a social safety net and pro-immigrant stance with voter concerns about the cost and local impacts of so many new arrivals, Republicans have pitched a more direct approach.

Councilmember Vickie Paladino, who represents parts of northeast Queens, held a protest outside a newly opened migrant shelter in College Point. She and GOP Councilmember Inna Vernikov in Southern Brooklyn, both of whom flipped their districts from blue to red in 2021 and face Democratic challengers this November, have been making regular appearances on Fox News.

“A majority of my constituents, both Democrats and Republicans, are not supportive of what’s going on right now,” Vernikov, who represents Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Sheepshead Bay, told THE CITY. “Most of my constituents do not want a migrant shelter in our district. I’ve spoken to a lot of Democrats who want this to stop.”

Her Democratic challenger, Amber Adler, an Orthodox Jewish single mother and community advocate, said that the city needed to do a better job of helping new arrivals. She pointed to a family shelter for migrants in Sheepshead Bay where multiple people were hospitalized after eating spoiled food provided by the city last month.

“Maybe she doesn’t know what’s going on in the district,” Adler said of Venikov, noting that she herself had helped link up a local nonprofit to provide additional food to shelter residents as a stopgap.

“If somebody has arrived, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to just not handle things in the best way possible,” Adler continued. “Once we have that at least a bit under control, we can go backwards and start fighting to get the original problem stopped, which is everyone’s shipping people to New York like they’re cattle.”

Asked about the hospitalizations, Vernikov said that “it didn’t especially come across our desk,” adding it wasn’t clear to her if the shelter food had caused the hospitalizations.

Fixing What’s Broken

A similar flashpoint to the one in Sunset Park played out in Coney Island in May, in part of a newly drawn South Brooklyn district that pits two incumbents against one another; Democrat Justin Brannan and Republican Ari Kagan, who switched to the GOP last December after being elected to office as a Democrat.

The city briefly sent a group of asylum seekers to live on cots in a school gym at P.S. 188, while the gym wasn’t in use because the school doesn’t currently have a gym teacher.

Both Brannan and Kagan came out against the move. Kagan rallied outside the school with parents and community members in opposition. Newly arrived migrants waited inside the gym, barred from leaving until the rally had ended and the crowd had dispersed.

“Ninety-nine percent of them were registered Democrats,” Kagan said of the crowd he’d joined that day, while accusing Brannan of trying to avoid the subject entirely. “Everybody who is a common-sense person is concerned, angry, and upset about what’s going on.”

Brannan, who tweeted days after those migrants left that “our schools should not be used for this purpose,” charged Kagan with having empathy “as deep as a kiddie pool.”

“Demagogues thrive in times of crisis,” Brannan said. “It’s all too easy to point fingers and say, ‘That’s broken.’ It’s infinitely harder to actually come up with the solutions to fix  what’s broken.”

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