WASHINGTON – Buffalo ranks eighth in a list of U.S. cities that have accepted the most Syrian refugees so far this year, federal statistics showed as the Obama administration unveiled plans Thursday to boost refugee admissions in 2017.
Buffalo’s four refugee resettlement agencies welcomed 225 refugees from Syria between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, State Department data revealed. San Diego led the nation in resettling Syrian refugees, welcoming 604, and only one city in the Northeast – New Haven, Conn. – welcomed more than Buffalo.
Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County resettled 70 Syrian refugees, with 12 more scheduled to arrive this month, said Marlene A. Schillinger, the organization’s CEO and president.
“It’s a humanitarian cause,” she said. “It’s in our mission to do so.”
The Syrians – who fled a brutal five-year civil war that the UN says has claimed 400,000 lives – arrived amid controversy over their presence in the U.S.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and other Republicans have said the Syrians, most of whom are Muslim, could pose a security threat and therefore should be barred from the U.S.
Schillinger, however, said her organization didn’t share those worries. “We know there are several levels of screening for people to come into this country,” she said. “They have been vetted several times. We’re not concerned.”
A White House official made that same point at a briefing Thursday, noting that refugees must prove they will be good additions to the U.S. and not a security threat.
Many refugees can’t meet the requirements for entry into the U.S., said Deputy National Security Adviser Avril D. Haines. She pointed out that the vetting of prospective new arrivals from Syria is actually more stringent than it is for other refugees, thanks to stronger standards set by the UN agency that starts the resettlement process and by the Department of Homeland Security.
After interviews with prospective new arrivals and the people who know them, “we have a lot of information,” Haines said. “Syrian refugees get a more intensive vetting than everybody else.”
But Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and strong Trump supporter, agreed with Trump’s contention that there should be a moratorium on refugees from countries that have a historical connection with terrorism, such as Syria.
“When it comes to the safety of America, we can’t afford to take a chance,” he said.
Another key Trump supporter, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., agreed.
“Terrorists have announced that they will infiltrate the refugee population and have successfully done so multiple times in Europe over the last year,” Sessions said, adding that the same thing could happen among the refugees coming to the U.S.
Wary of possible ISIS infiltrators, the House passed a bill last November requiring the secretary of Homeland Security, the FBI director and the director of national intelligence to approve the entry of any refugee from Syria or Iraq. That bill would also require the FBI to perform a background investigation on every refugee from those countries, in addition to the one the Department of Homeland Security conducts.
The Obama administration opposes that now-stalled legislation, noting that no Syrian or Iraqi refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. have been implicated in an ISIS plot.
The White House Thursday detailed its plans to boost refugee admissions in fiscal 2017 to 110,000, up from 85,000 this year and 70,000 in earlier years.
Given the numbers so far this year, a significant share of those 2017 newcomers are likely to be from Syria. State Department figures show that 10,066 Syrian refugees have settled in the U.S. in the first eight months of the year, more than from any other country.
Both Buffalo and the nation at large are now welcoming more refugees from Syria than from Burma, which was home to the largest number of refugees to enter the city and the nation over the past 15 years.
Most of the new arrivals have come as part of large families, said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. She estimated that the 225 Syrians who have come to Buffalo this year are part of 30 or so families.
Buffalo tends to get large numbers of refugees because it has four agencies resettling them, more than many communities. Those agencies work with national affiliates that work directly with the State Department to determine where refugees should go.
Local agencies like the International Institute don’t make those decisions, but Hassett said welcoming newcomers is a Buffalo tradition.
“Buffalo has resettled refugees as long as there has been a federal program, not to mention being a destination for the foreign born even before that,” she said. “We wouldn’t be the city we are without immigration.”
Hassett noted that refugees are helping to revive the West Side and Black Rock/Riverside, and that academic research shows that refugee communities generate economic growth over time.
Yet Republicans such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, focus on the costs that resettling refugees pose on the federal government and on states and localities.
“We must remain compassionate toward refugees but we also need to make sure that we use common sense,” Goodlatte said. “Unfortunately, President Obama unilaterally increases the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year and gives little thought as to how it will impact local communities.
Collins, meantime, said he was surprised to hear that the Syrians were coming to Buffalo.
“It certainly caught me off guard,” Collins said.
Schillinger, of Jewish Family Service, stressed that her agency and others are fulfilling a longstanding American ideal of welcoming the world’s vulnerable. She cited a quote from Nobel laureate Elie Weisel: “All are entitled to live with dignity and respect. All are entitled to live without fear or pain.”
She said she looks at that quote on the agency’s website every morning and thinks: “This is why we do it.”