In a suburban Central NY hotel, an international drama unfolds: Is the bus coming? (2023)

Salina, N.Y. -- Mike Branca had been sitting in the pavilion outside the Candlewood Suites hotel since midafternoon Tuesday, watching and waiting. People filtered in, sat for a bit with him, drank a beer, and left.

When was the bus coming, they all asked?

No one knew.

They were waiting for Central New York’s first bus of migrants to arrive from New York City.

The down-on-its luck airport hotel this week became a microcosm of the nation’s border debate. Anger was plentiful. Answers were elusive.

Hotel guests and government officials were left to sift through the little they had been told to find clues about what was to come.

No one was talking about when the bus was coming.

The question

The question was born May 18 in two places: the Salina hotel and the Syracuse office of Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon.

It started at the Candlewood Suites in the morning. Hotel management knocked on the doors of dozens of hotel guests, telling them they’d have to be out by the end of this week.

Long-term guests occupied 79 of the 123 hotel rooms. They said they asked why, but were told nothing, or that there was a renovation, which seemed unlikely.

Then they overheard the migrant bus plan. It seemed like it could be true, they said. More corporate people began to arrive in the hotel.

Some of those guests called town Supervisor Nick Paro’s office and McMahon’s office, they said. They wanted help. They were angry. Their calls mostly went unanswered. It could just be a rumor, after all.

Later that same day, McMahon issued an executive order banning migrant transfers to Onondaga County from New York City. McMahon said he decided to issue that order after seeing that DocGo was advertising job openings in Syracuse.

DocGo is a company that has largely operated below the radar, but was awarded New York City’s contract for handling the migrant crisis. They are in charge of moving, housing and caring for the asylum-seekers that are overwhelming New York City.

In a suburban Central NY hotel, an international drama unfolds: Is the bus coming? (1)

The end of pandemic border restrictions sent a flood of asylum-seekers to New York City, which guarantees shelter. But the city has struggled to deal with the numbers, leaving people who fled other countries for the safety of the U.S. to have doors slammed in their faces.

Two days after McMahon’s executive order, the question became more urgent with a call from New York City.

Paro, the Salina supervisor, was called by an aide to New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The aide, Chris Ellis, told Paro that a bus was coming to the town, bringing migrants from New York City.

The call was not a request. It was a “courtesy.”

It also begged the question: When? When is the bus coming?

When is the bus coming?

Maybe it will be Wednesday, Ellis, the aide, told Paro. But it could be Monday or Tuesday.

Now the clock was ticking. Both sides were scrambling.

When was the bus coming?

At the Candlewood Suites, there were new workers no one had seen before. They were cleaning out rooms. A recently arrived Dumpster was piled high with chairs, TVs, couches and other furniture. Maybe they were moving it out so there was room for more people.

On Monday morning, a town code enforcement officer visited the hotel. It was their first inspection in years.

The officer noted a table in the laundry room with 100 packets holding keycards, waiting for new guests.

Still, the town had received no more word from New York City.

Asaf Fligelman, a developer with the company that owns the Candlewood Suites, declined repeated requests for comment about what his company was doing with the hotel.

It felt like they were hiding something, guests said.

In a suburban Central NY hotel, an international drama unfolds: Is the bus coming? (2)

The hotel had more corporate workers roaming the floors, watching the doors.

One threatened to call police on a reporter and photographer, who were talking with residents.

Some residents said their electronic keys no longer worked. If they left and no one was in their room, they’d be locked out. Evicted.

If the hotel residents had been there for more than a month, they were actually tenants, and the hotel could not legally kick them out without filing for eviction, said Susan Griffith, managing attorney with Legal Services of Central New York.

The county and town pushed back against the bus with lawsuits.

Onondaga County filed one Monday night.

As that volley went out, the residents of the hotel and long-time workers watched the parking lot:

Was the bus coming tonight?

It did not. They went to bed.

An answer

The town filed its lawsuit to stop the bus at 9:30 a.m.

Around the same time, new security workers from a private company set up in the hotel lobby.

People who lived in the hotel were now hiding out in their rooms, peeking out to catch glimpses, but afraid of being kicked out if they left their rooms.

Every time Eddie Lenton opened his door, more people were swarming the floor, clearing out rooms.

Making way for the people on the bus?

Around lunchtime, vans and SUVs began unloading. These were not regular guests. Reservations were shut off until mid-October.

One of the SUVs was labeled “DocGo,” the company handling the city’s plan to move migrants. Justin Sayles, a spokesman for Onondaga County, said that company is the one that was handling the bus the Candlewood Suites was expecting.

Ahron Weiner, a spokesman for the company, texted a reporter Tuesday afternoon: “Ahron from DocGo here. I understand you’re working on a story about the Candlewood Suites hotel. Glad to connect and help you clarify some points.”

But then Weiner did not respond to the reporter at all Tuesday.

At the same time DocGo workers were unloading dozens of boxes of food at the hotel. There were crates of milk. Boxes labeled Tuesday lunch, Tuesday dinner, Wednesday lunch, Wednesday dinner.

In a suburban Central NY hotel, an international drama unfolds: Is the bus coming? (3)

The boxes sat in the lobby. The hotel has no restaurant or food service, and does not provide any breakfast to its guests.

Security began to patrol the parking lot.

Was the bus on its way?

“It seems like something is happening,” Lenton said in a text.

Something did: At 3:11 p.m., Judge Robert Antonacci approved the town’s request for a temporary restraining order. The county’s temporary retraining order also was approved.

The court had said the bus could not come.

Was the bus still coming? Sheriff Toby Shelley said he wasn’t sure he could enforce the court’s order if the bus did come. It was a civil matter, not a criminal one.

Nicole Sinda and her husband, Josh Williams, waited in the pavilion with Branca. She smoked a cigarette in the dark by the Dumpster.

It was around 8:30 p.m. Workers began bringing those boxes of food out to the Dumpster. Tuesday lunch. Tuesday dinner. Wednesday lunch. Wednesday dinner.

The hotel guests waited for a while. Maybe there was a mistake.

Sinda, her husband and some others loaded all the boxes into the back of their minivan and dropped them off at the Rescue Mission just before 1 a.m.

The bus did not come.

Was a bus ever coming? No one in Onondaga County government or Salina knows. The sheriff says he does not know.

Weiner, the spokesman for DocGo, the company that would have sent the bus, today denied a bus was ever on its way to Salina Tuesday.

What about all that food? What about the workers set up at the hotel?

He referred all other questions to New York City.

Reporters Mark Weiner, Fernando Alba, N. Scott Trimble and Anne Hayes contributed to this story.

Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people and public affairs in Central New York. Contact her anytime email | Twitter| Facebook | 315-470-2246.


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Onondaga County sues New York City to keep migrants out of Salina hotel

Central NY hotel expecting busload of migrants has been kicking out long-term residents

NYC to send first bus of migrants to Onondaga County, town official says

Sheriff won’t enforce order to stop migrants coming to Onondaga County

Ryan McMahon issues emergency order banning migrant transfer to Onondaga County

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