Coming to this country in pursuit of the American dream is the story of America. Today’s refugees and other immigrants share that same dream, and many are pursuing it in Western New York.
Many reach this country with little more than the clothes on their backs, hoping to work their way up and into prosperity. Such is the case with the immigrants featured in the recent Buffalo News article that dealt with a program matching refugees in need of work with farmers in need of labor.
About two dozen refugees are working on farms in Eden. The program began when Megan Burley of the Cornell Cooperative Extension was helping on an urban farm project with Journey’s End, an organization that helps refugees settle in Buffalo. The refugees’ stories are familiar and genuine, revolving around the desire to work hard and achieve for themselves and their families.
Refugees differ from the larger immigrant population in that they arrive in this country work-authorized. They are allowed to enter the country and work by the U.S. government because of documented persecution in their home countries. Farm work is often the first job, and that work is often available because of the increasing pressure against hiring undocumented workers. It is a good solution for the refugees and for farmers who need documented workers.
Farming is not the only option for refugees. Manufacturing is another sector where they are in demand.
Refugees and other immigrants, including students and skilled professionals, will be critical to economic development strategies in Western New York. They are already welcomed by many employers, and the need is going to grow as the region’s economy rebounds.
While many immigrants are working at entry-level jobs, there are some highly skilled professionals who may be working below their skill level. It brings attention to the need for workforce strategies that will place them where they are best suited and allow for more upward mobility.
Manufacturing companies are clamoring for motivated, hardworking employees, and immigrants, especially refugees, fit that description.
Businesses will need thousands and thousands of new workers in the near future. They range from the enormous solar panel factory at RiverBend and its suppliers to the Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor Business Park project on the East Side that will feature a $44 million job training center. Add in the new companies that will take root here under the Start-Up NY program and the 43North business competition, along with retirements of older workers, and it’s easy to see why experts project nearly 17,000 job openings in Western New York’s manufacturing companies by 2020.
Immigrants will be filling some of those jobs, and they need to have access to language and work training programs that will broaden their participation in all sectors, whether manufacturing, agricultural or service-oriented.
Buffalo has seen a wave of immigrants in the past 15 years, with about 7 percent of the city’s population now consisting of resettled refugees. There are an estimated 3,000 Bhutanese refugees alone, and other large groups from Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.
Mayor Byron W. Brown has expanded efforts to serve the city’s refugee and immigrant communities, among other things opening the Office of New Americans.
Immigrants have a growing relevance along the entire length of the wage and skill scale. The largest percentage of participants in the International Institute of Buffalo’s employment program goes to manufacturing.
Success stories of refugees and the entire immigrant body are well documented, from earlier generations to today. The common theme is hard work and achievement, the American dream.