Not Welcome at the Welcome Center: City Moves to Close Area in Port Authority Where Volunteers Help Migrants
The abrupt shutdown of a greeting area marks a breaking point in the fraying relationships between City Hall and the activist groups running the site.
City officials moved to close down the welcome center inside the Port Authority bus terminal where a bustling network of volunteers have greeted arriving migrants for the past nine months, advocates said Thursday.
The midtown site had grown into a vibrant outpost for new arrivals seeking hot food and clothing, along with earlier asylum-seekers looking for legal help, housing assistance and other aid.
Community organizer Power Malu with the group Artists Athletes Activists, which has been based out of the Port Authority since August, said the group got word Thursday morning that the state’s National Guard would be closing down the greeting area at 1 p.m. that afternoon.
THE CITY witnessed members of the state National Guard, which has been manning the volunteer area since last fall, turning away people who walked into the terminal seeking help just after 1 p.m.
Among those who arrived just too late was Javier Gil, 34, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker who stayed with a friend since his arrival several days earlier, but had just gotten kicked out. Searching for help, he learned about the Port Authority center, and said he wasn’t sure where to head next after being turned away.
“That took me by surprise. I have to keep looking into what to do,” Gil said in Spanish. “No other choice.”
By around 2 p.m., the soldiers had left the site while a few volunteers remained, packing up their belongings.
The closure comes ahead of the expected opening of the Roosevelt Hotel, a shuttered midtown hotel the administration recently announced would serve as a new centralized intake center for arriving migrants.
The National Guard, which has provided security at the welcome center since last year, deferred all comments to New York City officials, whose orders the soldiers are taking on the authority of Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams, confirmed the welcome center’s shutdown in an email Thursday afternoon.
“The city will be transitioning services offered to newly arriving asylum seekers from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to the new Arrival Center at Roosevelt Hotel this week — streamlining the intake process for asylum-seekers,” Levy said.
Levy added they were grateful to all the volunteers who stepped up to assist asylum seekers over many months.
“This humanitarian response should not fall solely on the shoulders of the city and volunteers. We are still sorely in need of support from the state and federal government,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Port Authority didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Ilze Thielmann, who leads the volunteer group Team TLC NYC, which started off inside the Port Authority with other groups, and later opened up a clothing distribution called Little Shop of Kindness nearby, said organizers planned to return to the Port Authority Friday morning anyway to greet arriving buses, unclear of what might happen.
A Deteriorating Relationship
Malu and other organizers said the welcome center’s abrupt closure had been a long time coming. To them it marked the culmination of a deteriorating relationship between city hall officials and volunteer groups assisting on the ground.
“They’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of us. Now they finally found a place they could actually control,” he told THE CITY. “We’re not welcome in the welcome center.”
Adams has regularly called for more help from the federal and state government, while putting out increasingly desperate calls for help in recent weeks to nonprofits and volunteers. At the same time, his office has blamed activist groups, for attracting asylum-seekers to New York City in the first place.
“A network of activists are organizing large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers to New York City via plane, bus, and other modes of transportation — taking advantage of city and state laws and luring them here with false promises,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, said in a statement on Monday.
Thielmann, with Team TLC NYC, said she was baffled by that attitude.
“It’s just completely insane that this accusation is being made. This is the kind of relationship we have with the city at this point,” Thielmann said. “[Adams is] calling for nonprofits to step up. We are the ones who stepped up and he is now excluding us from assisting these folks.”
To Thielmann the reason is that “in some twisted way they actually believe that … helping people makes people want to come here.”
In the Dark
The closure of the Port Authority welcome center followed a tumultuous few days, as around 4,300 asylum seekers arrived in the last week, including a record 900 people on a single day, city officials said.
Officials started moving migrants last week into a series of school gymnasiums with little to no warning, then abruptly pulled back from the plan — at least temporarily — following a day of protests at impacted schools across Brooklyn earlier this week.
Local elected officials and leaders have complained they too have been kept in the dark about the city’s plans to use or stop using facilities in their districts, even as the mayor has accused councilmembers of “a level of just total disrespect” in their communications with his administration.
At a press conference Wednesday held to discuss the city’s handling of the evolving situation, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom repeatedly declined to provide specifics of the city’s response, only saying everything was on the table, while insisting the city was being transparent.
“We will do our part to keep open lines of human communication with all of our elected officials and stakeholders and every New Yorker to keep them informed of the situation,” Williams-Isom said. “Ultimately, we are here today because we want to be transparent about what the city is addressing in this crisis.”
The Port Authority welcome center had ballooned into far more than a launchpad for newly arriving asylum-seekers. Word of its existence spread through WhatsApp groups and social media platforms, and thousands of migrants just starting out their lives in New York returned repeatedly for help on everything from OSHA paperwork and legal assistance to housing placement and school enrollment, THE CITY previously reported. In addition to buses of new arrivals, volunteers assisted between 250 and 300 people walking inside each day, according to Malu.
The abrupt shutdown, Malu warned, would disrupt the lives of thousands.
“We can’t shut down space, because people are going to come for services like they have been doing for the past year,” he said. “People are waiting for services. They don’t have shelter. They have different issues going on. We need to attend to them.”
Joel Zapata, 26, arrived in New York City from Chicago about a week ago on a Greyhound Bus, and spent his first night here on the street. Eventually, he made his way back to Port Authority, where volunteers helped him connect with shelter intake. He’s now staying at one in Queens.
Closing the Port Authority operation “sounds like a bad idea,” he said in Spanish on Thursday. “We all have information about this site. It’s the most central terminal.”