NYC decision to move migrants from tent shelter to a school amid storm draws fire

New York City’s decision to move nearly 2,000 migrants overnight from a tent shelter to a high school due to fears of an impending storm drew backlash Wednesday from parents of students at the school and others as the city struggles to house thousands of migrants seeking refuge.

The criticism included the city’s continued use of the tent shelter on a remote, abandoned airfield in an area of Brooklyn that is at risk of coastal flooding from storms. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday afternoon that with winds up to 70 mph expected, the city was proactively relocating the migrant families from the tent shelter at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn “out of an abundance of caution to ensure the well-being of those entrusted to our care.”

“While families are already in the process of temporarily being relocated, the city will ensure that essential services and the highest level of support are provided to all impacted by this decision,” Adams, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Migrants evacuated from Floyd Bennett Field arrive at James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, New York during a storm on Jan. 9, 2024.
Migrants arrive at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York, during a storm on Tuesday. Gardiner Anderson / NY Daily News via Getty Images

The shelter at Floyd Bennett Field is one of more than 200 sites New York City has established to house the surge of migrants arriving in the city since 2022 — largely as part of a busing campaign by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who is seeking stricter security at the southern border. New York, which has a legal obligation to provide emergency housing to anyone who asks for it, has struggled to respond to the thousands of people arriving in the city.

Floyd Bennett Field has been widely regarded as a poor location for a shelter because it is far away from schools, transportation and other services and is vulnerable to the elements.

Images captured Tuesday night showed yellow school buses dropping off migrants holding young children and carrying bags with their belongings in the rain.

Students at James Madison High School in Brooklyn were informed Tuesday that classes would be conducted virtually on Wednesday because of the school’s use as a “temporary overnight respite center.”

“To ensure a smooth transition for families temporarily sheltering overnight in the building, our school building will be closed on Wednesday, January 10 and school will be in session remotely for all students,” Principal Jodie Cohen said in a statement to families.

The decision was decried by some parents who held a rally at the school Wednesday morning. One woman who said she is the mother of two students at the school called the situation “unacceptable.”

Alina, who did not share her last name, said she was “very angry” that the city “put our children last” and were instead “prioritizing the migrants.”

State Assemblyman Michael Novakhov, who represents the area and organized the rally, said the decision to relocate the migrants was “just really wrong. The school is not a right place for migrants, for anyone except the kids.”

He added that Floyd Bennett Field was “not a good place for temporary sheltering.”  

“We have thousands of square feet of abandoned commercial property that we can use,” he said.

Zach Iscol, the commissioner of New York City Emergency Management, said at a briefing Wednesday that the school received hate calls and a bomb threat Wednesday morning. The bomb threat was cleared by police.

“These actions are not only deplorable, they’re also criminal offenses,” he said.

Floyd Bennett Field, along the shore of Jamaica Bay, was used for emergency relief during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, including housing 2,000 troops, according to the National Park Service.

Novakhov and others said the need to evacuate people demonstrated why the airfield should not be used as a shelter.

The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless said Tuesday that the “last-minute evacuation further proves that Floyd Bennett Field — a facility mired in a flood zone, miles from schools and other services — has never and will never serve as an appropriate and safe place to shelter families with children.”

The advocacy groups questioned whether the move would be “traumatic” and “disruptive” for the migrant families.

“We fear, especially with more inclement weather expected this winter, that this is only a foreshadow of more problems to come, and we again urge the City to cease placing families with children at this facility,” the groups said.

New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov said the city’s decision was “both unacceptable and was entirely foreseeable,” because of the airfield’s vulnerabilities to weather.

Vernikov called on the city to stop using public schools as shelters and said parents of the about 4,000 students at James Madison were “rightfully concerned.”

“This will agitate local residents, disrupt the entire school environment, and place a tremendous burden on our families, students, school administrators and staff,” she said.

Desiree Joy Frias, an organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid, said outside the school that the city should focus on “moving people into permanent shelters so they can start getting jobs.”

“That is not the way we treat people. They’re not cattle. They’re not livestock. They are human beings with lives, with children, with human rights that are fundamental to them,” she said.

New York City has taken in approximately 170,000 asylum-seekers since April 2022 and currently has about 70,000 in its care, in addition to the homeless population, Iscol said at a briefing on Wednesday.

The city said that it projects to spend $4.7 billion to provide shelter, food and services to asylum-seekers in fiscal year 2024.

Iscol said at the briefing that “all of us understand in the city that Floyd Bennett Field is not an ideal place to be housing families with children.”

“The city has done a remarkable job making that place work,” he said.

Iscol said all of the migrant families were returned to the tent shelter overnight, beginning at around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday after getting the all-clear from the National Weather Service. Most people were transported out by bus from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m, he said.

He said that the city is making alternative plans should the tent shelter need to be evacuated again and does not foresee using James Madison High School again.

“No one wants to disrupt the lives of asylum-seekers nor those of our students, parents, teachers and principals,” he said.