Staten Islanders are mobilizing to help the hundreds of South American asylum-seekers living in shelters in the borough — but you would hardly know it listening to their current member of Congress or the former member who is looking to reclaim the seat on Nov. 8.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn), the daughter of a Cuban refugee, contends that the influx of migrants poses a “quality of life” issue for her constituents even as she says Staten Islanders are doing what they can to help new arrivals.

“The surrounding community is very concerned,” she told THE CITY during a Bay Ridge campaign stop last Thursday. “These are individuals with no work authorization. They’ve not been approved for asylum, so they cannot work legally.” She added that community residents are “concerned these individuals may become desperate at some point and resort to criminal activity to survive.”

Congressional Rep. Nicole Malliotakis speaks in front of local Bay Ridge businesses surrounded by supporters. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Yet Democrat Max Rose — who was defeated by Malliotakis in 2020 — has stayed away from the fray on the asylum issue in the 11th Congressional District race, even as over 21,000 migrants arrived in New York City, many bused by Texas officials in El Paso or other border cities.

Rose addressed the issue in a congressional debate last week, but he appears to be treading lightly after his participation in a Black Lives Matter rally helped sink his re-election bid in 2020, with Malliotakis hammering him in attacks that painted him as a friend to criminals and a supporter of the “defund the police” movement. 

Democrats outnumber Republicans in NY-11, which includes portions of southern Brooklyn as well as all of Staten Island in a district set by a judge earlier this year. Campaigning to regain the seat he formerly held, Rose has refrained from public statements in support of the migrants or any visible support for the many volunteers who have aided them.

Last week alone, heaps of donations, including 28 boxes of new clothes, arrived at Central Family Life Center in Stapleton Heights, some donated by the corporate chains Kohl’s and Express. Benefactors have also provided new shoes, toiletries, school supplies and more.

Participants in the relief effort are resigned to a state of political unease and say they understand why Rose has stayed on the sidelines.

Max Rose campaigned in Brooklyn, before Congressional district maps changed after a court ruling, April 10, 2022. Credit: Max Rose/Facebook

“He’s a good guy,” said Yamina Ramirez, who works at Central Family Life Center. “He doesn’t want to step on any toes right now. When he gets into office, he’ll do well.” 

Asked by THE CITY to weigh in on the relief effort, Rose provided a statement last Thursday via a spokesperson that sidestepped the question and attacked the man at the top of the Democratic Party, President Joe Biden, as well as Republicans.

“This is a problem decades in the making because both parties have failed to secure the border and fix our immigration system,” the statement read. “Politicians shouldn’t be able to kidnap political refugees with lies and send them across state lines, nor can we have an open border. But this kind of common sense has been sorely lacking in Washington D.C.”

He added: “President Biden must provide immediate aid to NYC to alleviate the funding crisis, secure the border, and dramatically increase judicial resources so these claims can be processed quickly and fairly.” 

Fox News Megaphone

The anti-migrant message powering the Malliotakis campaign is echoing throughout Staten Island politics, amplified by Fox News.

Borough President Vito Fossella, who once represented Staten Island in Congress, appeared on Fox News with Travis Civic Association President Gene Guerra on Oct. 11, speaking out about how much it will cost taxpayers to educate migrant children in Staten Island schools. They talked about the generosity of Staten Island residents, while hinting at the migrant presence as a threat.

“In a nutshell, Travis can’t sustain the number of migrants coming here,” said Guerra. “This area of Travis is too small. We have nothing to offer these people. Yesterday I saw them walking around aimlessly. It was a beautiful day. But I don’t know what’s going to happen when the weather turns nasty.”

Richard Flanagan, a politics and public policy professor at the College of Staten Island, says it makes sense that Republicans are latching onto the migrant issue and connecting it to crime and vagrancy.

“It’s in the same family of concerns” that Republicans care about, he said. “It’s something that gets the conservative base hopped up,” he said, adding: “It’s all about fear of disorder.” 

Malliotakis and other House Republicans are advocating for what she describes as “common sense legislation.” She supports the hiring of more immigration judges; she wants more Customs and Border Protection agents; and she is calling on the Biden administration to reinstate “remain in Mexico,” a Trump-era policy that would send asylum seekers back across the border while they await decisions on their applications for protection. 

Malliotakis is also calling on Mayor Eric Adams to reassess New York’s right to shelter law — which allows anyone to access the city-run homeless shelter system — arguing that it does not apply to citizens of other countries. 

“People are very upset that our homeless remain on the streets while individuals who cross into our country illegally are being put in hotels,” she said. 

Of the 21,000 migrants who’ve passed through the city shelter system this summer and fall, over 16,000 remain in shelters, according to a City Hall spokesperson. 

When asked about efforts to assist asylum seekers on Staten Island, she said the Staten Island community has a heart, but they can’t continue to help long term. 

“We can’t possibly have migrants in every New York City hotel, tent cities in all our city parks or cruise ships off our harbors,” she said. “It’s not right to the taxpaying citizens and the legal immigrants who did everything right to have to support that.” 

Coordinated Relief

In Staten Island’s forbidding political and cultural climate, efforts to assist asylum seekers persist. Organizations that include Central Family Life Center, Project Hospitality, La Colmena have scaled up their services, creating a network to help asylum seekers feel safe, welcome and supported. 

Central Family Life Center employee Ricardo Balbuena has been helping to distribute donations to migrants on Staten Island. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Community leaders are directing donations to the Central Family Life Center, which normally provides youth, mental health, HIV and other programs to support Staten Islanders. The items collected by the center are then picked up by Project Hospitality, a group that has long helped immigrants acclimate to Staten Island, and delivered to the asylum seekers. 

La Colmena, a workforce development organization in the borough, is also integral to this network. The group typically works with day laborers and domestic workers, providing training and teaching individuals about their rights. 

With the wave of new arrivals, the organization has scaled up its efforts. It nearly tripled the amount of food it distributes from 30 bags to 80 bags per week. And it’s working to create construction safety training specifically for asylum seekers as a result of high demand for the certification.

Yesenia Mata, La Colmena’s executive director, says migrants she’s working with seek the training because they want to build lives here and be able to support themselves and their families. 

Ronald — who asked to be referred to by his first name alone — is a new arrival from Venezuela, who is now enrolled in an OSHA class at La Colmena. He arrived in El Paso with his wife and daughter, who were then bused to New York City. “I’m in this class because I want to know what it means to work in New York City,” he said via an interpreter.

In Venezuela he was a data analyst, but because his daughter has autism and faced a difficult and dangerous life in Venezuela, he and his family decided to come to the United States. “I want to give back to the community,” he said. “That’s why I hope to work here.” 

Even as La Colmena and other groups have worked diligently to support the new arrivals since this summer, the path has been filled with obstacles. At a City Council oversight hearing in August, Mata testified that La Colmena was providing services to asylum seekers “despite receiving constant threats against our community, including vans with Trump flags parking in front of our center with the aim of intimidating us.”

Mata added: “La Colmena’s funding is at risk, as there is an effort by some to defund our center and leave us out of the NYC Fiscal Year 2023 budget.” She declined to specify to THE CITY where those alleged threats came from.

Despite these existential challenges, Mata says she wants to work with elected officials. “Negativity shouldn’t be coming out of the island,” she said to THE CITY. “We should be united.”  

Desperation and Democrats

Some Democrats on the island have been working with these organizations to provide support. Jasmine Robinson, a district leader in the North Shore’s 61st Assembly District, says the community’s response has been mixed but that she’s proud of their efforts. 

“The work on Staten Island has been really good,” she said. “I know there are some that feel that we should be helping citizens, but we gotta help everybody. What’s the solution? To turn them away and say you can’t come here? Where does that leave them?”

With early voting starting on Saturday, Malliotakis keeps saying over and over, yes, turn the immigrants away, while Rose punts to the Biden administration. 

“It’s an issue Democrats running on Staten Island would want to avoid,” said Flanagan, the policy professor. “It exposes the Democratic party underbelly — what they’re doing about border security.” 

The one step Biden did take to slow the flow of migrants was a big backpedal for Democrats — regressing to embrace a policy first put in place by Donald Trump. In mid-October, President Biden invoked Title 42, a Trump-era policy he once denounced, to prevent Venezuelans from seeking asylum at the border on the basis that it is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

That came after Adams declared a “humanitarian crisis” and a “state of emergency” and called for Washington to provide more support. The number of migrants started to fall dramatically as the new policy was implemented. 

“There’s no plan or answer or long-term solution,” said Flanagan. “That’s on the White House to formulate. Democrats beneath the Biden ticket — all they can do is grimace and run for the hills.”

Flanagan adds about Rose: “He’s probably wise to just zip it.”