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Syracuse Resettlement Agencies...and Economy Continue to Adjust to Dramatic Drop in Refugees

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Resettlement agencies in Syracuse continue to adjust to the significant drop in refugees nearly three years after president Trump’s executive orders severely restricted the number allowed to enter the U.S.  In part one of this story, we learn about the most recent order that adds another layer to the process.

Before president Trump took office, the U.S. typically welcomed upwards of 80,000 refugees every year, more than 1,000 of which settled in the Syracuse area.  President and CEO of Interfaith Works Beth Broadway says this year, the president set that number at 18,000.  That means only about 200 will end up here during the October to September fiscal year.

“We did have a lot of families that did come over the last period of time out of the many different wars in the Middle East, the Congo, and parts of Africa.  They will not be the families that will be coming.  So, the reunification of families will not be allowed during this particular year.  That’s a very, very difficult thing for our families here to be dealing with.”

Broadway says the executive order also includes so-called carve-outs for the U.S. State Department, not just the UN, to determine where some refugees come from and the conditions that warrant asylum.  She says they used to take in hundreds from places like Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Somalia, and Sudan.

“That got wiped out in 2017.  Nobody could come from a country that was predominantly Muslim.  Well, that’s where many of the wars are happening, and where people need support.”

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Several churches, including All Saints Catholic Church in Syracuse, have openly welcomed refugees and immigrants in response to federal efforts to curtail their entry to the U.S. All Saints has a large Congolese congregation.

Broadway says as an interfaith organization, they find restrictions based on faith very disturbing.  On top of that, she says states and municipalities that re-settle refugees now have to send a consent letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“So, this is a huge issue.  It’s not a problem here in New York State, nor with our county or city governments because they’ve extremely supportive of refugees.  But in some places, it could be quite a problem.”

Syracuse and Onondaga County were among those that did recommit to the refugee resettlement program. A quick on-line news search found many other state and municipal leaders nationwide also agreeing to accept refugees, and some condemning the order because it allows the option of rejecting asylum seekers.  Broadway worries that refugees and immigrants get painted with the brush of terrorism, and are to be feared.

“Nothing could be further from the truth.  Refugees are highly vetted.  They are carefully considered whether they are the right people to bring to the U.S.  When people apply for asylum at our borders, there’s a vetting process for them, as well.”

COMMUNITY FEELS THE IMPACT

The number of refugees resettling in Syracuse has dropped by about 75 percent since the Trump administration began severely restricting those allowed to seek asylum in the U.S.   That's having a big impact on resettlement organizations…and the region.

The contrast is stark.  Syracuse-area agencies were helping to resettle more than a thousand refugees per year until 2017.  After the president’s executive orders, that number has now plummeted to about 200.  Interfaith Works President and CEO Beth Broadway says they’ve had to shift their services from helping refugees with housing, furniture, school registration, and employment to post-resettlement needs.

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"Now we have a whole set of wrap-around services for people who are going to be looking for their second job, the job that gets them out of poverty, the job that might have some health benefits.  Now they know the American workforce, they know English a little better.  We're doing more intensive work with people around their medical needs and mental health needs."

Broadway says they’ve had to be nimble about finding other funding sources, and the community has been responsive and supportive.  She says the loss of so many refugees has had a significant and immediate ripple effect on the economy.

"Refugees [have an economic impact]  in a short period of time...less than a generation...we're not waiting for the refugees' children to better our community.  The initial family that comes in a short period of time becomes an economic boost to our community."

Broadway says there a far fewer entrepreneurs, landlords are struggling to fill apartments, and schools have seen a dip in enrollment.  That translates to less education money from the state.  The medical research community even has fewer patients.  The census could be affected, and result in reduced federal grant dollars.  Post resettlement language, learning, and citizenship services that grew up around the steady stream of refugees are struggling.  Then Broadway says, there’s the moral impact.

"Every one of our faith traditions has a moral obligation to serve people who are widows, are orphans, people who do not have a place to live, do not have food.  Not having refugees is a sore place for the 120 faith communities that support Interfaith Works."

For perspective, Broadway says there were 400 refugee resettlement agencies nationwide at the end of 2016.  Today, there are 300.  She says when the flow of refugees returns to normal levels, it’ll be very difficult to re-build that infrastructure. 

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.