Aug. 16, 2023 By Michael Dorgan
An economic migrant who recently moved into an upscale Long Island City hotel-turned-shelter says he wants to work hard to give his family a better life while local residents and business owners, who are empathetic to his plight, say the opening of the new facility marks a massive backward step for the desirable neighborhood.
Yohandri Arevalo, 32, says he and his young family arrived in America on July 4, having made the treacherous journey from Venezuela where — among other extremely difficult terrains — they had to navigate a brutal jungle area called the Darien Gap which is situated along the border of Colombia and Panama.
Arevalo said he paid armed Colombia Guerrillas around $5,000 for help with the journey before the family eventually ended up at the Collective Paper Factory, a former swanky four-star hotel located at 37-06 36th St. that opened as a shelter for economic migrants last week. The shelter is expected to house around 500 migrants — most of whom crossed the southern border illegally — by the end of the summer.
“It was not easy, it was six days through the jungle, and we had to climb mountain after mountain after mountain,” Arevalo told the Queens/LIC Post in Spanish, which was translated into English by a translator. “We were hungry, thirsty, and sleeping on the ground in a tent. Along with the other migrants who came with us, we all went hungry, and we couldn’t sleep worrying about our children being kidnapped or raped. But thank God today I’m here in New York. Thank you.”
Arevalo is married with two sons — ages 8 and 14 — along with a 9-year-old daughter. He is one of nearly 100,000 economic migrants that have come through the city’s intake system since the spring of 2022.
A small number of them have applied for asylum, and Arevalo said he wants to apply for asylum, but cannot afford the lawyer fees to do so.
Arevalo and his family were previously staying at a Manhattan hotel-turned-shelter before being placed at the Collective Paper Factory at the end of last week. When operating as a hotel the establishment had a gym, several meeting rooms, communal spaces, and a bar/restaurant on the ground floor.
This interview was translated into English by Camille Botello
Arevalo spoke to Queens/LIC Post outside the 125-room facility on Monday, Aug. 14, where his 8- and 9-year-old children were happily playing on the sidewalk with several other kids from the shelter. His eldest son was inside, while his wife was outside the shelter speaking with two other couples who said they, too, were from Venezuela.
Most of the migrants the Queens/LIC Post attempted to speak with said they were from Mexico or Venezuela, while others appeared to be of Asian descent. One man, who was with his pregnant partner and their son, said they were from Mongolia.
None of the migrants appeared to be able to speak English.
“I don’t understand English very well, but I’m going to learn it,” said Arevalo, who added that he made the decision to come to the United States after hearing on the news that the country was minding migrants once they arrived.
Arevalo said he is looking for work, but he does not have a New York City-issued ID, which is proving to be a hindrance. He previously worked on his family’s farm growing yucca and bananas while he can also cook, paint and complete gardening tasks.
“By God’s mercy … I’m already looking for work, although people tell me no because they don’t know me.”
Meanwhile, one longtime local resident, who said she wishes to remain anonymous, said that the economic migrants were calling into various businesses throughout the neighborhood over the weekend looking for work.
Another woman, who has lived at the adjacent The Silver Star apartment building since it opened in 2018, says she is not happy about the shelter opening and is already looking to break her rental contract in order to move out of the area.
“I’m really upset. It took us by surprise and we’ve had no time to process or prepare for this. All of a sudden, our lives have changed completely, from day to night,” said the woman, who did not want to provide her name and was out walking her dog. “People are anxious. People are nervous about what it’s going to be like when it’s full at the end of the summer.”
The Silver Star tenant was also unhappy about the lack of notice given by the city.
A spokesperson for Council Member Julie Won told the Queens/LIC Post last week that throughout the crisis, the city has not notified elected officials before commercial hotel shelter sites opened in their respective districts. The mayor’s office told the Queens/LIC Post that it is unable to disclose information on locations of migrant shelter sites due to state law on social services, although it can provide information on the 13 large-scale emergency relief sites that are open, such as those at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in eastern Queens and at Randall’s Island.
“We’re concerned about the garbage, the people loitering, there’s been no security measures and there’s just been no communication from anybody about how all this will go,” the Silver Star tenant said. “We don’t know who they are, where they are coming from, how long they will be here or how long this will be a migrant sanctuary.”
Her comments follow those of The Silver Star’s owner Michael Cohen, who told the Queens/LIC Post last week that he was appalled about the decision to open the hotel as a shelter and said the shelter will not be good for the local economy.
Cohen’s comments appear to be ringing true already as Manuel Roman, who manages a deli across the street from the hotel called All American Coffee Shop, said his business is already down 50% in revenue since the shelter opened.
Roman, who moved to New York from Mexico 30 years ago, said that a large portion of his customers were guests at the hotel. He said that that customer base has now been wiped out since none of the new migrants at the hotel purchase items at the deli.
“I know they are humans, but they have put my business down 50 percent,” said Roman, who noted that three people work at the deli. “I have to pay rent. I have to pay Con-Ed — I have to pay everything; I have to support my family. I work very hard from 4:30 in the morning to seven o’clock at night … we work every single day to survive.”
Roman said he now needs financial assistance from the city, given the circumstances.
“Give me a hand,” he said.
Meanwhile, Edwin Mercado, an Astoria resident, said he is against the housing of migrants in the city and across the country. The Astoria boundary runs along 37th Avenue, which the side of the hotel faces.
“I don’t think that the federal government should be arresting and releasing them into the country. I think they should be deporting them right back to where they came from,” Mercado said. “This is a very nice neighborhood and they are unemployed — they are illegal.”
Many elected officials have been saying that all economic migrants should be housed and fed, but Mercado said he disagrees with that stance.
“I think that their position is not helping because it’s costing the city a lot of money,” Mercado said.
The cost to the taxpayer to house and feed the new arrivals is now expected to hit $12 billion by the summer of 2025.
“These politicians, it’s all about what gets them votes,” Mercado said. “They don’t care how they get the votes and they don’t care that they’re damaging the city.”
He said that lawmakers are putting the needs of migrants ahead of citizens, as well as legal immigrants who often have to wait in line to secure visas and/or work permits before they can legally enter, or work in the country.
Mercado said he had called Won’s office to express his anger about the new shelter and spoke to a member of her staff. Won represents District 26 which covers Long Island City, parts of Astoria, Sunnyside and Woodside. Her office told the Queens/LIC Post last week that there are more than 30 migrant shelters in the district.
“I expressed how I feel, that this is a nice neighborhood and they’re ruining a nice neighborhood,” Mercado said. “They’re getting everything for free and everyone else has to work and they just want to keep taxing us.”