Rockaway Gets Heated at Migrant Meeting

 Rockaway Gets Heated at Migrant Meeting

By Katie McFadden

It was a packed house at the first Belle Harbor Property Owners Association meeting since November on Tuesday, March 19. The auditorium of P.S. 114 was filled with residents who came out to express concerns over migrants living at Floyd Bennett Field, who may venture across the bridge as the weather warms up to cause trouble, and it sure got heated.

At the special meeting hosted by the BHPOA and the Neponsit Homeowners Association, Councilwoman Joann Ariola asked representatives from the NYPD, the NYC Office of Emergency Management and NYC Health + Hospitals, which oversees the migrant shelter at Floyd Bennett Field, to join her to answer questions from residents as concerns grow with summer approaching. This meeting, though planned weeks in advance, came after the court case to shut down the shelter at Floyd Bennett Field was dismissed last week.

After addressing other items on the agenda for the BHPOA meeting, president Paul King brought up the “elephant in the room.” On Tuesday morning, radio host Curtis Sliwa allegedly made statements claiming that more than 3,000 migrants now reside at Floyd Bennett Field and that the city is planning on putting single male Haitian immigrants at Fort Tilden. King said that he contacted the National Park Service and Congressman Gregory Meeks’ office, which both said that they heard nothing about these claims. “We’ll have our guard up,” King said.

Councilwoman Joann Ariola also addressed these claims, saying they are false. “We are not at all where Curtis Sliwa says we were. We do not have over 3,000 people at Floyd Bennett Field because the lease caps at 2,000 and if they get 2,001, I’ll be the first to say they broke the lease, you’re out. There will not be Haitian migrants brought here to Fort Tilden. Curtis may say Joann Ariola lied to you, she said they wouldn’t go to Floyd Bennett Field. That is a lie. Floyd Bennett Field was always on the radar because the governor wrote to the president and chose that property and gave the city no other choice but that property to put 2,000 people, families there, and we fought it hard,” she said before discussing the actions that have since taken place in courts before the case was dismissed last week. The attorney for Ariola, Williams and about 40 other parties who signed on to the lawsuit, is currently going through Judge Peter Sweeney’s memorandum on his decision, to determine if it’s worth appealing.

Continuing on Sliwa’s claims, Ariola said, “Remember, this type of sensationalism sells airtime, but what it does is it scares people from the community. Tomorrow, he can call me a liar again, but I know I’m not lying. If anything comes to Fort Tilden, which it will not, we will be the first to find out.”

Ariola then explained why she helped organize the meeting. Among the panelists on stage with her were Captain Carol Hamilton of the 100th Precinct, Donald Cranston on behalf of Brooklyn Assemblywoman Jamie Williams, who has been a leader in the fight against the shelter, but was in Albany on Tuesday, Dr. Ted Long, a senior vice president for New York City Health + Hospitals who oversees the health response to the migrant crisis in the city, and Ira Tannenbaum, Director of Public/Private Initiatives for the NYC Office of Emergency Management. “How come I’m the only elected official standing here?” Ariola said. “I’m the only one that has the guts to stand up and say Floyd Bennett is not only a bad place to put people, it’s inhumane to put people there, and I’ve been fighting against it. But they’re there and we have to work with what we have, which is this group that has dealt honestly with me. It’s been cold out, so a lot of people residing at FBF have been going more north, to Avenue U, Kings Plaza, and this is why I wanted this meeting. The warm weather is coming, and we are one short walking bridge away from FBF. On the few days we did see warm weather, we’ve already started to see panhandling on our streets, more on Beach 116th, people in our backyards and migrants coming into front foyers. These were people who had messages on phones saying, ‘I’m a migrant from FBF, please give me money.’ I want to nip this in the bud. I want to address the problem before it starts.

“I’m going to continue to advocate for you and make sure our summer is not disturbed by any type of criminal behavior as a result of people at FBF. I think about panhandling on our beaches, on our streets, leaving towels and pocketbooks at our chair and going into the water and coming back and it’s not there. We’ve seen an uptick in crime since FBF opened, an uptick in shoplifting, thefts, that’s why I’m here tonight. I want to know what upsets you most.”

Questions, some that were pre-written, and then others that were shouted out from passionate audience members, were then asked to the panel. King kicked it off asking a question from an audience member named Harold, who wanted to know how migrants are being vetted for diseases. Dr. Long explained that when they come to an arrival center in NYC, everyone is screened for communicable diseases such as Covid and given a full body skin exam for things like rubella and chicken pox, plus a screening for active tuberculosis. “At the arrival center in FBF, we offer every vaccine you need—measles for kids, chicken pox, covid, flu, and we give a QuantiFERON blood test to see if anyone has had TB before, so we can treat it before it becomes contagious,” Dr. Long said. Harold then doubled down, asking Dr. Long if migrants are required to take the vaccines that are offered. “What is not required are vaccines,” Dr. Long said. He then clarified that children who attend school are required to get all of the necessary vaccines to attend.

As another hurricane season approaches, Tannenbaum was asked what Rockaway’s evacuation plan is and how the 2,000 migrants that now need to be evacuated may impact Rockaway’s evacuation needs. Tannenbaum recommended that everyone to go and enter their address to determine their exact evacuation site that they would use if an evacuation were ordered. “If we need to evacuate FBF, it will be done independently. We want to make sure we’re tracking the residents there and we would bus them to an identified shelter that we’re working with partners to put in place, if necessary,” he said. Ariola tried to clarify the original question, saying, “There are tens of thousands who live on the peninsula and that’s our evacuation pathway down Flatbush. Now we’re taking 2,000 more people. What do we do when we’re waiting for FBF to be evacuated and why should we wait when taxpaying citizens of this city need to be evacuated?” she said, before urging Tannenbaum to come back to her office with an answer. Referring to the recent evacuation of migrants to James Madison High School during a storm, Cranston of Williams’ office added, “Our schools are not evacuation sites.”

In a question directed at Captain Hamilton, King asked, “We have had an uptick of people pulling on door handles and coming onto our properties. What can we do when we see people trespassing?” Captain Hamilton urged people to call 911 so they can respond. The conversation expanded into police not being able to get there in time since short staff has led to fewer patrols in the neighborhood. Hamilton suggested that people to try to hold the person there but added that the police can use security and Ring camera footage to investigate and try to arrest suspects at a later time. Some expressed frustrations about suspects being released from jail after being arrested, with one neighbor asking, “How do we keep them in jail so they’re not coming back here?” Ariola responded, “You have a chance in November to change that,” explaining that people should vote for officials who will change the laws and repeal things like bail reform and enforce laws at the border.

A question was brought up about what will be done if migrants start setting up tents on the beach overnight. Captain Hamilton explained, “NYPD has a process. It’s a homeless encampment. So we get other agencies involved like social services and sanitation and we do the cleanup,” Hamilton said. Ariola added, “If the person is there, they can get help. If they don’t want help, we can’t make them but the minute they leave, sanitation comes in and scoops up all of their stuff. We don’t want tents on our beaches all summer long and there won’t be.”

The issue of there not being enough police patrols was discussed. The 100th Precinct recently received 16 new officers, but of those, six were assigned to transit temporarily. King asked if when the summer detail is assigned to Rockaway, if more patrols can be assigned to the neighborhood and not just the beach and boardwalk. Captain Hamilton explained that she doesn’t know how many officers they will be getting with the summer detail to know how patrols will be assigned, but those summer officers are typically meant to patrol the beach and boardwalk. Ariola said that she will continue to work with One Police Plaza to request more officers to be assigned to the local precincts. The idea of starting up a private security service in Belle Harbor, like Neponsit has, was also brought up but King reminded people that most neighbors have to be willing to chip in for it to keep costs low.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind for the panel was, “How can you make us feel safe?” Ariola said, “There was a time when there was more interaction with NYPD and ICE when it came to anyone entering our borders illegally, and because of right to shelter, ICE was taken out of the equation and that’s a problem because we have people illegally in our country who should be taken by ICE until they’re convicted and then deported. I belong to a nine-member Common Sense Caucus in city council, and we met with ICE and will meet with the mayor because the mayor is looking for a workaround with ICE and these officers are only as good as what the law will allow. We must elect representatives that are ballsy enough to say we have to change the laws. This year, the election is for Albany and president and next year, it’s for the city, and everyone should be looking to see how your reps voted.”

With such a sensitive subject at hand, the meeting got heated, with several audience members loudly expressing anger over the subject and requiring police intervention to calm folks down. King attempted to move on to other topics toward the end, but the auditorium emptied out when no more questions about the migrant issue would be taken.

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