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A Surprising Salve for New York’s Beleaguered Cities: Refugees

23 Feb

Communities across upstate New York say an influx of refugees has helped alleviate decades-long struggles with dwindling populations and opportunities.


BUFFALO — Newcomers have filled up hundreds of empty homes and apartments, and poured money and energy into destitute neighborhoods. Former churches have been reborn as mosques and refugee health centers, or found new congregants to fill pews and collection plates. Students have restocked classrooms at public schools where enrollment had been in a decades-long downward spiral. Storefront “For Rent” signs have given way to “Grand Openings.”

While President Trump has cast incoming refugees in a sinister light, the influx into the beleaguered communities along New York’s old Erie Canal has been a surprising salve for decades of dwindling population and opportunity.

The impact has been both low-budget and high-tech: Foreign-born students from countries like Iran have flocked to programs — and paid tuition and fees — at upstate schools offering advanced scientific degrees, while street-level entrepreneurs have started shops offering knickknacks and takeout for curious locals, and exotic staples and calls home for homesick émigrés.

Local businesses have found cheap, willing labor in the rolling stocks of refugees, while resettlement agencies have used federal funding to assist with their assimilation, creating work for everyone from refrigerator sellers to house painters.

And the irony is that it is the cities’ long-term struggles that have inadvertently made them popular locations to settle newcomers.

“People left and left housing vacant,” said Shelly Callahan, the executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica. “So when refugees came in, the prices were cheap, and they were ready to put in the sweat equity that a lot of people weren’t anymore.”

And that, in turn, “put properties back on the tax rolls,” Ms. Callahan said.

All told, upstate communities took in nearly 95 percent of the some 5,000 refugees New York accepted during the last fiscal year, according to the state’s Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. Perhaps nowhere has that impact been more profound than in Buffalo, the self-described “City of Good Neighbors,” where about 10,000 refugees have been placed over the last decade.

“One of the reasons that Buffalo is growing, that Buffalo is getting stronger, that Buffalo is getting better, is because of the presence of our immigrant and our refugee community,” Mayor Byron W. Brown, a Democrat, told several hundred recent arrivals at a town-hall meeting in early February.

The stance of Mr. Brown and other upstate leaders sharply contrasts to President Trump’s remarks casting refugees as potentially “very bad and dangerous people,” bent on bringing “death and destruction” to America.

Other critics, while less hyperbolic, note the new arrivals often cost the government money in the form of food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid benefits, as many begin new lives here below the poverty line. Schools also sometimes struggle with language needs and some school districts have been the subject of embarrassing, and costly, lawsuits relating to their treatment of refugee students.

Still, economists say that such upfront costs are usually mitigated by immigrants’ long-term benefits to a community, a desire amplified by their often traumatic pasts.

“The drive for citizenship and the drive for a permanent home is a pretty powerful drive,” said Paul Hagstrom, a professor of economics at Hamilton College, who has studied the impact of refugees on upstate cities.

And unlike native upstaters, they tend to stick around. “My kid and every other kid here graduates from college and moves somewhere else,” Mr. Hagstrom said. “Refugees, they stay.”

The impact has been felt in cities like Rochester that are still reeling from the departure of keystone businesses. “Northwest Rochester was Kodak country,” said Michael Coniff, the executive director of Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services. “As a neighborhood, we lost 50,000 jobs” as the film maker’s fortunes declined. The exodus of residents that followed, however, has been partly stemmed by new arrivals. “So it’s a very positive thing,” he said.

That attitude is also evident in Buffalo, where Mr. Brown established a city liaison to the growing immigrant community, and the impact of the new arrivals is readily apparent on Buffalo’s West Side, a low-income neighborhood separated from Canada by a slim sliver of Lake Erie.

Long a jumping-off point for immigrants, the neighborhood has more than 500 previously empty homes occupied by refugee families, according to State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Democrat who represents the area. New businesses reflect that new diversity: The West Side Bazaar, “an international small-business incubator” teeming with food stands, does a healthy business, as does a local grocery offering fruits, vegetables and “worldwide money transfer.” A new local newspaper, The Karibu News, publishes in at least six languages.

While Mr. Trump’s order has been stayed by federal courts, the turmoil surrounding it has nevertheless unsettled both the refugee and the resettlement communities.

Dennis C. Walczyk, chief executive of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, said that the president’s order had spread suspicion among new arrivals. “They’re questioning us,” Mr. Walczyk said, adding: “Even though we’re all independent, nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies, the connection seems to be being made by some of our clientele, that, ‘Well, you’re an arm of the government.’”

Groups like Mr. Walczyk’s do receive an administrative payment for their work in settling new arrivals — $900 per person — and the potential loss of that money is another point of concern, though refugee placements have restarted. Some resettlement groups across the state have already tightened their belts, and reduced staffs, reflecting President Trump’s immigration order and his administration’s plan to accept 50,000 refugees this federal fiscal year, as opposed to the target of 110,000 set by President Barack Obama. (One small upside of the order, however: Groups say donations and volunteerism are up.)

Eva M. Hassett, the executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, another resettlement agency, says she fears that the changes proposed by the new administration would imperil the city’s longstanding reputation for welcoming newcomers, something that dates back to waves of Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants who followed the trains and canals west in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Most of the Great Lake cities were immigrant gateways, because historically there were jobs, and there were communities” of other immigrants, said Ms. Hassett, whose group dates to 1918 and was once responsible for making “war brides” from World War I feel welcome.

Today, the city’s appeal for refugee placement is the same. “There’s work,” she said.

Mr. Hagstrom, the economist, says that it’s not clear if those workers are displacing American employees, but that the bulk of those positions for refugees are “starter jobs” like working in greenhouses, kitchens or laundries, often replacing previous generations of immigrants. “It’s a well-worn path,” he said.

Some here are training for more sophisticated work, and their reactions to the president’s order suspending refugee admissions for four months and blocking arrivals from seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days have been a mix of bewilderment, anxiety and hurt. Mohsen Daghooghi, an Iranian postdoctoral fellow researching computational fluid mechanics at the University at Buffalo, found himself suddenly separated from his wife and 6-month-old son when they were recently denied re-entry to the United States after a trip to visit family in Iran.

Mr. Daghooghi, 36, said that in more than seven years in Buffalo, he had both paid taxes and spent money — “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he estimated — but said he would leave if that was what Americans wanted.

“If a majority of the U.S. does not want any Iranian or other countries here for work or other things, O.K., no problem, we come back to Iran or go to other countries where we can do our job,” Mr. Daghooghi said.

But he rejected the president’s suggestion that he or other Iranian students at the university were dangerous, noting the intense screening they already undergo. “That’s a ridiculous excuse,” Mr. Daghooghi said. “And it’s not just ridiculous, it’s insulting.”

On Sunday, however, Mr. Daghooghi finally had a sense of relief: His son and wife had landed in New York and passed through customs. And on Monday, the family was reunited in Buffalo.

“I think next time,” he said, “we have to travel together.”

Reassuring refugees and immigrants that they are wanted here was a principal purpose of a recent “Know Your Rights” event held at Jericho Road Community Health Center in Buffalo, which offers health care for immigrants.

Inside, several hundred new and more established arrivals packed the room, which was also filled with volunteer lawyers; one table was arrayed with a row of pocket copies of the Constitution. Translators created a babble of languages as officials spoke of solidarity and support in wake of the presidential order.

Mr. Brown, the mayor, spoke last, mentioning the yellow “Refugees Welcome” flag he’d just hoisted outside City Hall. He joked that the flag was not as heavy as those often doing battle with the Lake Erie gales.

“But that flag, so far, has withstood that wind,” the mayor said. “Just like all of us are going to withstand what is coming out of Washington right now.”