How to Read the Watson Hotel Protests

A group of male migrants and refugees protested to avoid being removed from the hotel rooms paid for by the city. Is the local authority required to provide for all their needs? Or should they take on the responsibility to provide for themselves?

So here’s the situation: a group of male migrants and refugees, mostly Venezuelans, protested last week in front of the Watson Hotel—the 600-room hotel hosting them—because the New York City Hall transferred them to a different facility making space for new waves of migrant families, arriving on buses from the southern border.

To this date, “more than 43,200 migrants have come through the city’s intake systemwith around two-thirds of them remaining in the city’s care. In other words, 28,800 migrants have become the responsibility of this local government. 

These recent events in New York have sparked conversation and controversy, mainly because some believe there’s a limit to the support a city government can provide—and to how much migrants should rely on assistance from the receiving country, while others argue that those migrants do not have conditions or the network (to find jobs and housing) to start providing for themselves right away.

The answer is not simple. 

The City of New York has had an open-door policy, becoming the home of many migrants and refugees bused in from the US-Mexico border. However, the projected cost of receiving those migrants was between $500 million and $1 billion, an expense the city hadn’t previously budgeted for. Funding that comes from the city’s taxpayers. 

As new waves of migrants continue to arrive, an executive decision was made to move male migrants from the over 70 hotels in which they were housed, to “humanitarian emergency response and relief centers,” including the Watson and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. 

The migrants’ immediate response was to protest, arguing that those new shelters had poor conditions because they had to sleep in cots laid end-to-end, with little or no privacy, no hot water and no private bathroom or places to store their belongings. Additionally, they argued that the terminal was too far from public transportation or the few options for employment that Manhattan had to offer.

Too much?

It is important to keep in mind the reality these migrants face. Finding affordable housing in the New York area is not an easy task, and they do not receive their work permits right away.

They do not necessarily have networks of friends and family that can support them. But considering they had been living in these hotels since October, we need to also consider where the line is between the support a receiving country or local community can provide, and the responsibility of the migrants who have to create a new life in their new country. 

Because even those of us who are pro-migrant understand there is a line.

I know those protesting in the hotel are not the majority of hard-working Venezuelan migrants rompiéndola in the US. But of those who behave that way, I sometimes worry that they brought with them a mindset aligned with the asistencialista model that has been in place in the country for the last 20 years. Sometimes I worry that they started their migration journey with no plan in mind, and thought all will be solved upon arrival. Or that the desperation to find a new life with rights and democracy was such that they left without understanding the implications of starting a new life, in a new country, with a new language. 

Hoping this is not the case, ultimately, I also think they need to understand that the so-called American dream requires a lot of work and energy (it won’t just fall on their laps) and also that the more opportunities they create for themselves, the more respect they will receive in the new countries, and the prouder their fellow nationals will feel about them. I hope this turns out to be the case for them in the end.  

* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).