Staten Island, the New York borough where Trump is a hero
Chaotic press conferences, questions over Russia and an aborted attempt at an immigration ban: For many observers, President Donald Trump’s first month in office has been a bumpy ride. But many in the New York borough of Staten Island disagree.
In this corner of New York City, Trump‘s nascent presidency has been nothing short of a triumph for many of the Republican billionaire’s loyal supporters.
“We love him and he’s doing a great job!” says Aiman Youssef, a resident of Staten Island.
New York’s least and most sparsely populated borough, Staten Island can seem like a world away from the glitz of Manhattan or the brownstones of gentrified Brooklyn. Largely residential, blue-collar and white, the island has a distinct identity – something that remains true when it comes to politics.
While traditionally Democratic New York City voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in November’s election – with the former secretary of state and first lady winning 79 percent of the vote overall – Staten Island very much bucked the trend, with 57 percent of the borough’s residents backing Trump.
Law and order
Among them was Youssef. As a Syrian-American who moved to the United States in the 1980s seeking better opportunities, he may seem like an unlikely supporter of a president who has attempted to halt immigration, including refugees from Syria like himself.
However, Youssef believes Trump is simply providing the security that the country needs.
“Mr. Trump is imposing law and order. And some people, they just want the wild wild west,” says Youssef. “He’s protecting the country.”
So far, he is more than happy with Trump’s record since taking office in January.
“Everything he said he’d do during his campaign, he’s now doing it.”
In 2012, Youssef lost his home when Hurricane Sandy tore through Staten Island. The experience inspired him to start his own disaster relief charity, Half Table Man, which provides food, clothes and other goods and services to those in need.
But he sees no discrepancy between his own charity work and his support of Trump’s attempted immigrant and refugee ban.
“Let’s cover the needs in this country and then we cover the needs in other countries,” he says, as he delivers donated goods to a Staten Island church from where they will be distributed locally.
Families to feed
There is, however, a group of people on Youssef’s own doorstep who fear Trump’s policies could have a very real and damaging impact on their lives. Although Staten Island is New York’s only borough where non-Hispanic whites are the majority, there is still a sizeable immigrant population here.
Some of them have already felt the wrath of Trump’s presidency. Earlier this month, local media reported that five Mexican residents of Staten Island had been arrested in raids by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Luis, 23, works for an organisation that helps immigrants in Staten Island find work, including those who are in the US illegally.
“Usually, you’d see people waiting here and here,” he says, pointing to empty street corners known for being areas where illegal workers line up, hoping to land a job as a day labourer.
“Maybe it’s just the cold weather, but there haven’t been many since Trump.”
People in Staten Island’s immigrant community are scared for their livelihoods and over whether or not they will be able to stay in the United States.
“The fear is [of] impacts at so many levels – they rely on this. They have families to feed.”
At 4.6 percent, Staten Island’s unemployment rate hit a 10-year low at the tail end of 2016.
Nevertheless, it is fear of the effects of cheap immigrant labour on jobs and the economy that led many in the borough to back Trump at the ballot box last November, says Sal Oliva, 32.
The long-time Staten Island resident works at a hotel not far from Trump Tower in an upscale neighbourhood of Manhattan while making extra money as a painter and decorator.
“It affects me economically because I have to compete [with] cheap labour,” he says. “Illegal immigration is stealing American jobs and driving wages down. A lot of people [in Staten Island] are impacted by illegal immigration.”
Saving the country
Oliva does not shy away from showing his support for a president he believes is going to “save the country”: he even has a tattoo of Trump’s face on his arm.
“I got it done after he signed the executive order to start building the wall with Mexico. I was just so happy that he’d kept that promise,” he says. “The guy who did it was a Mexican; I think he ripped me off on the price.”
As a gay man, Oliva is aware that his support for Trump’s conservative administration might surprise some. But for him there is no dichotomy, particularly when it comes to taking a tough line on immigration from largely Muslim countries.
“I think gay people have a kind of Stockholm syndrome with Islam, always trying to defend it. But these people burn gay people in the streets in their countries,” he says.
Even in Staten Island, being an outspoken Trump supporter can come with a cost.
“I’ve lost friends, I’ve had people stop talking to me who I’ve known for years. It’s been harder to be a Trump supporter than a gay man, can you believe that?”