Outrage over migrants housed on Staten Island has revived talk of the borough seceding from New York City.
Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella said he’s preparing to launch a new study funded by his office, which will outline how the “Forgotten Borough” could become its own city, with a separate local government, police force and public school system.
Fossella called the migrant crisis “just one more thing” that Staten Islanders have had imposed on them by the New York City government.
“It’s just another indication of when the people of Staten Island don’t want something and they’re told they have to get it,” Fossella said. “The alternative is if we want something, we’re told we can’t get it.”
One benefit of secession, according to the borough president, is that New York City’s “right to shelter” wouldn’t apply to the new city of Staten Island. A shelter in a former Catholic school building with room for up to 300 migrants has been the site of regular protests in the borough. Some of those have turned ugly, with some locals taunting asylum-seekers. More than 120,000 migrants have arrived in the city since the spring of 2022 , according to Mayor Eric Adams.
The idea of secession resonated with some Staten Islanders who spoke to Gothamist this week.
“The migrant issue is a New York City issue that New York City is throwing on Staten Island like it did with the dump,” said Iran Colon, 37, referring to the borough’s long-standing grievance over the Fresh Kills landfill, which closed in 2001.
Fossella is the latest Republican elected official on the Rock to publicly mull secession. Last year, Councilmember Joe Borelli introduced a bill to create a task force to “assess the feasibility of the secession of Staten Island.” The task force would study the total cost of secession, political implications and how resources would be allocated.
The bill has bipartisan support, with Brooklyn Councilmember Lincoln Restler, a Democrat, listed as a co-sponsor. Restler declined to comment on the legislation, which remains in committee.
Borelli said an independent Staten Island would not have taken in migrants.
“The city of Staten Island would have handled it more similarly to the other counties in New York state, where this right to shelter would not apply,” Borelli said. “We would not be part of this $12 billion in projected spending and we would be better off financially for it.”
Borelli, a Republican, said Staten Island’s secession goes beyond the dispute over migrants, and seeks to rectify the borough’s lack of political power. The nearly 500,000 people who live on the island make up less than 6% of New York City’s overall population. State Board of Elections data shows 31% of the borough’s active voters are registered as Republicans. By comparison, registered Republicans make up less than 9% of active voters in the other four boroughs..
Borelli lamented the bureaucratic hurdles he faces for something as simple as installing a stop sign.
“There’s this wild notion that Staten Island would be unable to do the things that every other municipality does, whereas every municipality not called New York City somehow manages to build roads and put out fires and cut the grass in the park,” Borelli said.
But Staten Island is not a uniform GOP stronghold; Councilmember Kamillah Hanks, a Democrat, represents the North Shore. Some residents opposed the idea of secession.
“Staten Islanders should be proud,” Kevin Parks, 56, said while waiting to board the ferry and head to work in Manhattan. “But I think the idea that we’re gonna solve whatever problems we have by leaving the city is really just a terrible approach.”
Dwayne Eon, 35, liked the idea.
“Staten Island is a beauty of its own. And honestly, if it could support itself on its own, to be its own city, then I support that, too,” said Eon, a 15-year resident of Staten Island.
The history of Staten Island’s secessionist movement is closely linked to the Fresh Kills landfill, which opened in 1948. At its peak in the 1980s, Fresh Kills received 29,000 tons of garbage daily and was the world’s largest landfill. Fossella said Staten Island was “figuratively and literally dumped on.”
In 1993, 65% of Staten Island residents voted in favor of secession in a nonbinding referendum. But the move required the approval of the state Legislature. Then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocked the request, saying that the City Council and mayor needed to initiate the secession process.
The movement died down after plans were announced to close Fresh Kills and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the Staten Island Ferry free.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis added her voice to the secession chorus in August, citing her constituents’ concerns about the borough’s migrant shelters.
“The reality is the City Council and the state Legislature would need to let Staten Island go. I hope they do reconsider this. I mean, I hear all the jokes all the time that they would love to get rid of Staten Island. Well, this is your opportunity,” the Republican said on NY1. “I think Staten Island would like to have an opportunity to self-govern.”