An angry backlash erupted at a Brooklyn high school on Wednesday, after New York City officials housed about 500 migrant families in an auditorium there overnight because of heavy rains and fierce winds at their shelter site.
About 2,000 people were evacuated on Tuesday evening from their tent shelter at a remote former airplane runway in Brooklyn to James Madison High School. Families with children piled onto the floor and into auditorium seats to sleep. By 2 a.m., several families said they were asked to prepare to return to the tents.
The evacuation led officials to call a remote day of classes for the more than 3,400 students enrolled at the high school, sparking immediate backlash from politicians and parents that echoed on a national stage. Local elected leaders, right-leaning media personalities and even Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, weighed in to criticize the government response.
The outrage was the latest political eruption over the tens of thousands of migrants crossing the southern border in recent months. Republicans have attacked Democrats over how they are managing a crisis that has overwhelmed government agencies.
The blowup over the high school occurred in Midwood, a conservative pocket of southern Brooklyn where tension over the migrants’ presence was already high. The high school received a “torrent of hate calls and even a bomb threat,” city officials said at a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, a small group of parents and elected officials rallied outside the high school, calling for the tent site at Floyd Bennett Field to be shut down. The mother of one ninth-grade student complained that she had to scramble to rearrange her family schedule when the switch to remote learning was announced.
At one point in the rally, a mutual aid worker who supported the migrants interrupted to yell out, “We are all New Yorkers!” — prompting an extended shouting match with protesters who held signs that said “Keep shelters away.”
“We cannot turn schools into shelters. It’s just not right,” said Michael Novakhov, a Republican in the State Assembly who represents parts of southern Brooklyn. He added that he felt sorry for the migrants too.
Edison Chavez, 38, had evacuated the shelter site on Tuesday with his wife, Valeria Lopez, and their two young sons. They have lived at the former airfield since arriving from Ecuador a month ago.
Mr. Chavez said in a text message that it appeared that many migrant children did not go to school on Wednesday after a sleepless night at James Madison. The experience was nerve-racking, he said.
“Babies were crying,” Mr. Chavez said. “It was really windy.”
Mayor Eric Adams praised the city’s response, saying workers were “doing a great job keeping asylum seekers safe and dry.” Migrants had been relocated “out of an overabundance of caution,” officials said, since the tent shelter lies in a coastal area that is especially prone to wind gusts.
Nathaniel Styer, an Education Department spokesman, said on social media that schools have long “opened their doors to families displaced during emergencies,” adding that “turning our back on the most vulnerable is not what we stand for.”
The episode recalled one last spring, after the city announced plans to shelter some migrants in public school gyms. Human rights groups and parents from across the political spectrum argued it was inappropriate to house migrants in schools. The effort was abandoned days later.
The recent images of exhausted migrants and protesting parents also revived complaints over the use of Floyd Bennett Field as a shelter location for families with children, who face lengthy journeys from there to their schools and other services.
At a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, city officials said they weighed several factors when selecting the high school, including the storm’s timing and whether other spaces were available. Upon arriving at the high school, migrants were given supplies like baby formula, bottles, hot food and blankets, they said.
“We don’t foresee us using James Madison High School again,” said Zachary Iscol, the city’s emergency management commissioner.
Still, some politicians questioned what would happen the next time the city faces heavy rains and winds. “Every time there’s a flood, are they going to find a new school?” Inna Vernikov, a conservative city councilwoman who represents parts of South Brooklyn, said on social media.
“Why don’t we send them to Gracie Mansion?” she asked, referring to the mayor’s official residence.
The backlash over the move also extended beyond Republican leaders.
In a letter to school leaders, the city’s principals’ union wrote that “while we recognize the safety concerns brought on by the storm,” schools “should never be used to temporarily house non-student populations.”
“We urged the city to consider more viable alternatives,” union officials said, adding that some migrant students from Floyd Bennett Field would be likely to need “additional support in the coming days as they navigate through this unsettling experience.”