Police and sanitation crews swept asylum seekers from the sidewalk in front of a Hell’s Kitchen hotel Wednesday night, seeking to end a standoff with men who had refused to move to a new city-run shelter in Brooklyn. 

Working with grassroots community organizers, the migrants had rallied earlier in the day for work permits to help them become self-sufficient. In the meantime, they sought a place to stay with better conditions than available at the barracks-like Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook, which some had inspected on a reconnaissance mission.

At about 4 p.m, staffers from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs arrived at the Watson Hotel on West 57th Street to ask the migrants to relocate to the Brooklyn shelter, and several proceeded to board yellow school buses with their luggage.

About 600 migrants had been staying at the hotel at city expense until this weekend, when the attempted transfer began — but relatively few had stayed the night in Red Hook. Some who boarded buses and saw the Red Hook shelter came straight back to the hotel, sleeping on the sidewalk when refused re-entry.

Migrants were bundled up against the cold Wednesday afternoon. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City workers tried to assuage migrants’ concerns, telling them that it would take 150 days to get work permits after filing for asylum — and offering to help with the process once they moved to the new shelter. 

“We deserve a dignified place,” said one of the migrants to the others, as they deliberated on whether they would capitulate and head to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. 

Through WhatsApp messages and in-person word-of-mouth, those who had been to the terminal had given unappealing accounts to those camping out at the Watson: that the shelter was cold, without adequate places to safely store their possessions, and that they’d be sleeping on cots. 

Some migrants chose to brave another cold night, while others took their chances at the Brooklyn terminal. 

“To be suffering like this, why?” said Kennedy Gonzalez, a 37-year-old Venezuelan, who decided to go to Red Hook after spending Tuesday night outside of the Watson. “One night and the cold weather was killing me. I didn’t come to The United States to suffer. I came here to work for my family.”  

Mayor Eric Adams questioned earlier Wednesday whether any of those who had remained outside of the hotel were truly migrants, and said earlier this week that mutual aid groups are raising fears over the terminal shelter.

“We are grateful that almost all single men who were staying at the Watson Hotel have chosen to heed our calls and come inside from the frigid temperatures tonight,” said City Hall press secretary Fabien Levy in a statement. “The single men who were staying at the Watson have now all either chosen to transfer to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal — a humanitarian relief center that multiple elected officials today called a ‘warm’ location — or decided to leave our care by connecting with friends, family, or other networks.”

Bruno, a 24-year-old migrant, was among those who had refused to leave for the Red Hook site Wednesday, having returned from the terminal after visiting it as part of a delegation of Watson residents with Commissioner Manuel Castro. 

He said he had been at the Watson for less than two weeks when he learned Friday from hotel staff that he would have to leave the next day. Bruno said that an official working out of the hotel had given him a Spirit Airlines plane ticket to Charlotte, N.C., where a friend had a construction job for him, with departure scheduled for Saturday, but that he couldn’t board because his ticket didn’t include a baggage allowance.

Levy did not address plane fares in his statement but did say, regarding next destinations of men lingering at the Watson: “six asylum seekers chose to be reticketed to meet friends or family in other cities.”

Venezuelan migrant Bruno said he was looking for work and housing while camped out in front of the Watson Hotel, Feb. 1, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By the time the police cleared the men Wednesday night, Bruno had slept in front of the Watson for four nights. The airline rescheduled his flight for Monday, but the upheaval cost him his ticket. 

“The best thing we could have is the work permit to defend ourselves and so we can be independent,” he said on Wednesday afternoon.

Bruno’s whereabouts Wednesday night are unknown.