Mayor's migrant tents being built by Trump border wall contractor

Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo

NEW YORK — A contractor tapped by Mayor Eric Adams to erect a migrant tent shelter in The Bronx received hundreds of millions of dollars to build former president Trump's border wall, a City Council member told POLITICO.

The arrival of more than 15,500 such travelers — many from Venezuela and Colombia — has set off an operational and political maelstrom for Adams, who has been sparring with Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott while struggling — sometimes in vain — to meet the city's legal obligation to provide shelter to those who request it.

Last week, Adams announced a 1,000-bed tent facility in a remote section of The Bronx that wouldn't comply with right-to-shelter laws — but would buy him some time to find them longer-term housing.

The contractor in question is Texas-based SLSCO, according to Council Member Shahana Hanif of Brooklyn, who chairs the Committee on Immigration that will grill the Adams administration on its response to the more than 15,000 asylum seekers who have arrived since the summer. The firm was previously paid more than $200 million to work on Trump's border wall.

“That is not OK,” she said. “These walls were literally created to keep migrants out. I question exactly who the city is contracting with, and whether we know the full scope of their previous work.”

SLSCO has worked with the city before — it built a field hospital in Red Hook during the height of the pandemic.

The company referred questions to the mayor’s office but noted in an email that it's happy to assist clients in times of need. The mayor’s office said it was not aware of any work SLSCO did on the border wall.

Spokesperson Fabien Levy said the company was chosen based on its past work, which also includes building and staffing the Covid hospital at the National Tennis Center in Queens, while also providing vaccine and other services related to the pandemic.

Hanif plans to lead other left-leaning colleagues in a protest against the tent center before she leads the hearing on Friday. Once behind the microphone, she aims to question city officials on services being offered — especially in light of a migrant woman who died by suicide in one of the city’s facilities. She also wants to probe the process for integrating children into the city school system and the hazy relationship between the Bronx tent facility and the city’s right-to-shelter rules.

“The council is deeply invested in ensuring the almost [15,500] asylum seekers are welcomed into the city and guaranteed dignified services including housing, legal and medical attention along with food and education,” Hanif said. “The impetus for the hearing is to one, demonstrate to New Yorkers that we care, and two, to better understand what the administration is doing.”

The administration plans to send Zach Iscol, the head of New York City Emergency Management, and Manuel Castro, commissioner of Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, to testify Friday. Officials from the Department of Education and the Health + Hospitals Corp. will also be present to field requests.

Questions about the tent facility began percolating soon after the city announced a declaration of emergency Aug. 1 that allowed it to fast-track procurement for asylum-seeker services. In particular, the selection of an Orchard Beach parking lot for the five heated tents that will constitute the relief center raised eyebrows in the Council, especially as winter approaches.

The city has said the facility is a better way to provide a variety of services tailored to asylum seekers while determining whether the new arrivals want to continue to another destination or enter the city’s shelter system, which was near capacity even before integrating nearly 11,800 who are currently being boarded.

The city is required to provide shelter to anyone seeking it. The tent facility buys the administration time before the clock starts ticking — if asylum seekers were to arrive directly at an intake facility, the Department of Homeless Services would be compelled to find them a bed that same night. The apparent arrangement has sown concerns with advocates and lawmakers.

To address the additional influx, City Hall has also tapped into unused hotel capacity to open 39 emergency shelters as of earlier this week. However, officials are also looking for a longer-term fix.

Adams himself has floated the idea of housing the asylum seekers on docked cruise ships, something City Hall Chief of Staff Frank Carone examined during a recent overseas trip to Europe. As the New York Times recently reported, Carone has been in touch with Norwegian Cruise Line executives to explore housing migrants on one of its vessels. He reportedly came up with the idea after staying aboard one of the company’s cruisers during a trip to Normandy last month.

Norwegian Cruise Line did not respond to multiple requests for comment. And Levy, the mayoral spokesperson, would not divulge details on where a ship might dock or where else migrants would be housed.

Levy said City Hall is considering several locations that meet the criteria of a humanitarian relief center: At least 100,000 square feet with the potential to double in capacity; a “hardened structure or asphalt” to limit flooding — a problem raised over the mayor’s planned tent city in the Bronx — and a place that is not in use and is ready for immediate occupancy.

Few locations along the city’s shore could accommodate pleasure vessels of the scale that might be offered by a major cruise line.

Red Hook, Brooklyn is home to a cruise terminal. And a 1,000-bed Navy vessel docked on Manhattan's West Side during the Covid-19 pandemic, though it treated few patients.

The north shore of Staten Island, which boasts deep-water docking stations where a large cruise ship could be moored, is among the locations the administration is considering, according to several people with knowledge of City Hall's negotiations.

Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli, who represents a portion of Staten Island, said the mayor should be focusing on an even bigger picture.

“We have to deal with the crisis at the back end in New York City,” he said. “But I would hope my colleagues see this as a massive failure of the Biden Administration.”