Van Cortlandt Motel asylum-seekers quietly ‘removed’

Councilman Eric Dinowitz says he had no notice of the move


The families seeking asylum at Van Cortlandt Motel were quietly moved out of the Naica operated shelter last month and spread across several shelters in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. It has been a painful transition for those families.

One man who was moved alongside his wife and two kids spoke to The Riverdale Press about the new Naica-operated shelter he was moved — a hotel nearly two hours away on foot from Van Cortlandt Motel.

“The shelter is smaller,” said a father through a Spanish translator who preferred not to give his name. “It was better here, more freedom. I don’t have many things close to me. We were used to everything. The kids would go down to the parking lot to play. Now they are locked up in their room.”

Though he has moved, his children are still enrolled in schools in greater Riverdale. In order to make it to school on time, they have to wake up at 5:30 a.m. when it is cold out and take multiple buses. For the youngest child it requires two buses and for the oldest it requires three. Changing schools would mean losing all the friends they’ve made, according to the father.

The father has also been desperately waiting to get an ID and work permit so he can get a job somewhere. “I came here to work,” he said.

It is somewhat unclear why the families at Van Cortlandt Motel were suddenly removed. Councilman Eric Dinowitz told The Press several weeks ago that he received zero notice of the move and that the city Department of Social Services said it had nothing to do with the rule that requires migrant families to leave shelters after 60 days and reapply for placement.

He said that the DSS has a long way to go in terms of being a working partner.

“The DSS as usual has been extremely opaque so whether it’s as you remember in (September),” Dinowitz said, referring to the DSS not arranging a visit to the motel to see alleged poor living conditions. “Whether it’s about the opening and the functioning of a migrant shelter, whether it’s about the closing of a shelter or whether it’s about the development of a new shelter at 6661 Broadway, DSS operates in what seems like complete secrecy.”

Dinowitz said on Tuesday it took multiple emails and phone calls to fully understand what was going on because the DSS didn’t use the word “eviction,” but rather “removed” to describe the asylum seekers being forced to leave the shelter.

“Because we didn’t ask if migrants were being moved, they didn’t share information with us,” Dinowitz said. “The fact is migrants were being told to leave and were being placed in other shelters. These are things that my office could have been helpful with had they reached out.”

Both the site manager at the motel, Milagros Rivera, and Naica did not respond for a comment as of press time.

Aside from the families, perhaps numerous organizations that supported and created bonds with them have felt an emotional strain. They include the Riverdale Y, the Riverdale Neighborhood House and the Friendly Fridge Foundation.

The community-based fridge, which focuses on redirecting food and bringing healthy food to the community, provided hundreds of pounds of food a week for several months for the migrants staying at the motel.

Other volunteers taught English classes to the families, drove them to the hospital, donated toys and raised money for haircuts. They also held clothing drives in coordination with the Y and Riverdale Neighborhood House.

Kevin Kane, a retired teacher and musician, would bring hot food directly to the shelter.

“I got to know them very well,” Kane said. “Six nights a week, I would go in and probably be there for 20 minutes or so. Everyone I met was so nice. Mothers and fathers, wonderful kids who would be so happy to see you come. They would help me with my Spanish, laugh at my accent.

“It was a shame the last night I saw them, they were weeping. And you know, they said they hoped they would see me again.”

The Riverdale Y was devastated to see the families go, as some of the children were in their early childhood center. They also had recently hosted a dinner and holiday party for families and kids, coordinating with Naica to bring busloads of the children.

Before they were officially removed around Jan. 18, the families came to the Friendly Fridge, asking for suitcases. Families were apparently only given two fresh direct bags by Naica to move.

“They told me that everyone was allowed to have two bags, not two large bags and suitcases were not the way to go,” said Shira Silverman, volunteer coordinator at the Y. “And that’s one of the things that really bothered me because we had been going out of our way to get them resources, getting them warm clothes, getting them decent shoes,” Silverman added.. We had a Christmas party so the kids could have toys, and like OK well you know, does that mean they just have to leave everything?”

Selma Raven, co-organizer of the Friendly Fridge Foundation, explained how the Riverdale community came together to help families on their move, dropping off suitcases and bags collected from students and community members.

“It was really something that just shows you the spirit of the community and also the resilience of the asylum-seekers,” Raven told The Press. “This community is unbelievable with the way they’ve come together, even if everyone has their own sentiment on the situation, it was just a need being met with the spirit.”

One family was split up with a father taking two of his kids to a new shelter and a mother taking one kid back to Ecuador. With the families spread across the city, the Friendly Fridge has seen a lot less from the families who stayed at Van Cortlandt Motel. Raven said she hopes that they will be able to connect to resources because the fridge doesn’t have the bandwidth to support them in the ways they need.

“The Riverdale Neighborhood House gave me a whole bunch of Metro cards to give them,” Raven said. “And they’re like ‘oh, but it’s OK, now we have a dining room. Before we just had to take the food to our rooms. Now there are four microwaves for 300 people instead of two for 160 people. I am never hearing complaints, which is crazy.”

Before being removed from the motel, some of the migrants also did jobs for community members like cat sitting or painting.

“They don’t ask for much in contrast to these (news) articles you see of them robbing people,” Raven said. “The families that we have come in contact with are just superbly grateful and will take anything.

“And of course I’m not saying those things didn’t occur, but they don’t fight for anything, they’re just so thankful to be here and all they ask for is jobs. That’s all they ask for. They come to the fridge all the time saying, ‘do you have jobs? Do you have anyone who will hire us?”

Van Cortlandt Motel, migrants, New York City, Mayor Eric Adams, Kevin Kane, shelter, Shira Silverman, Riverdale Neighborhood House