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City of Immigrants

Staten Islanders Tell Asylum Seekers They’re Not Welcome: ‘Why Not Put Them on Rikers?’

The Staten Island site of a shelter for asylum seekers has seen near-daily protests.

1:14 PM EDT on August 29, 2023

A large crowd of Staten Islanders protest the existence of a migrant shelter near the entrance of the Verrazzano Bridge.

(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)

On Monday evening, a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and basketball hoops near the entrance of the Verrazzano Bridge was packed with hundreds of Staten Islanders who had gathered to protest the City's decision to shelter asylum seekers in their neighborhood. 

Early in the night, John Tabacco, a Newsmax personality and former candidate for city comptroller who has attended several similar rallies over the past weeks, climbed a makeshift stage that tottered on top of a PA system. "The eyes of the world are on Staten Island," he told the crowd. "It's the oldest trick in the book to point at the white people on Staten Island: How come you folks hate migrants?" But Staten Island, Tabacco insisted, was "the great melting pot."  

"We wouldn't be here if our ancestors didn't come here legally," Tabacco said. So please don't swear at the news cameras, he warned—keep it PG. 

"We don't hate migrants, we hate illegals," yelled a man in a windbreaker and oversized American flag shorts from the center of the crowd. "It's a takeover!"

Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella addresses the crowd. (Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)
(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)

Monday's protest, attended by a collection of Staten Island residents, right-wing personalities, and Republican politicians, was the latest in a week-long series of rallies to ostensibly address residents' dissatisfaction with the conversion of the nearby St. John Villa Academy into a temporary migrant shelter. Since a state court overturned a restraining order filed by Staten Island officials to close the facility, protests have been occurring near-daily. On Friday, some rally attendees threatened to storm the facility. On Sunday, at a similar protest, a handful were arrested following a series of confrontations in front of Gracie Mansion. 

The City's plans would have placed up to 300 people in the empty school. So far, only around 20 have been relocated there, a number that continues to shrink as the demonstrations continue. According to one organizer at the protest, nine remain, though City Hall has not confirmed that number. 

Speakers at Monday night's rally, including U.S. Representative Nicole Malliotakis, Borough President Vito Fossella, and (naturally) Curtis Sliwa, hit a broad series of culture war grievances. "The Supreme Court can’t define what a woman is," Tabacco told the crowd. Malliotakis stood on a ladder and said, "If you're not gonna do your job, mayor, then let Staten Island secede."

This protest—billed as a "block party" and, according to the flyer, featuring "security provided by the NYPD"—spilled out into the well-manicured lawns dotting the street. The NYPD referred our question about the NYPD presence to the Mayor's Office, which said they weren't aware of any permit submitted for the protest, though one organizer made a point to tell the crowd that "the right is protected by the security I put on the flier."

Curtis Sliwa works the crowd. (Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)
(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)

Attendees wore T-shirts reading "God's children are not for sale" and "Euthanize pedophiles not pitbulls." John Matland, a former healthcare worker who rose to prominence during protests against COVID restrictions in 2020, spoke from the rickety podium wearing a Mac's Public House shirt. "The lockdowns might be coming back," he said. "Will you declare your independence today?"

Some residents sat on lawn chairs, drinking from Solo cups next to a two-story banner that read "No F@*^cking Way." On one lawn, a woman who lived on the block and declined to give her name lamented that migrants received free healthcare. "The media wants to say we don't want them here, that we want them in other places," she said. "That's not true. We don't want them anywhere." A man next to her pulled up a photograph of his Sicilian grandfather on his phone to illustrate what it looks like when an immigrant comes to America "the right way."

Across the street, a 68-year-old woman named Debbie held a cardboard sign reading, "Hey Adams, the crackers are here." A self-described libertarian, she said she was concerned about crime and disease from the people staying in the school. "Why not put them on Rikers?" she asked. "It's a contained space, where you can vet them, and give them all kinds of medical tests."

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. (Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)
(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)
(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)

As the streets grew darker, the smell of cigar smoke filled the air, and the mood turned slightly paranoid. A man rushed over to his friend saying he'd seen on the news that "antifa is here." And indeed, Tabacco said, antifa was trying to "sneak in with American flags" so they wouldn't be detected. When it was time to leave, he suggested, women should pair up with men to avoid an attack. A knot of guys with covered faces held a line towards the back of the event, handing out cards. The crowd began intermittently rushing to the barricades toward the back of the event, spooked by some implicit threat, before being ushered back to the stage by a stocky man dressed like he was going to war.

(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)

Once the speakers concluded, most rally attendees wound their way past a dozen police vehicles, spilling out into empty streets with oversized American flags and home-made signs. A lone counterprotester, confined to a tiny triangle of barricades, livestreamed from his enclosure wearing a pink mask and tiny shorts. He'd come out from Brooklyn, he said, to "give migrants a voice." 

Next to the empty stage, a group of teenage boys were some of the only protesters remaining. They stood in someone's yard next to a poster reading "Stop Illegal Dumping," hitting an empty water bottle in time to the PA system playing Ace of Base's "The Sign." 

(Christopher Lee / Hell Gate)
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