Refugees – including 149 from Trump's travel ban nations – arrive in Buffalo - The Buffalo News
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Refugees – including 149 from Trump's travel ban nations – arrive in Buffalo

WASHINGTON – President Trump's promise to cut in half the number of refugees coming to America – and therefore Buffalo – has turned into a dream unfulfilled.

Buffalo offers proof of it. State Department figures show the city welcomed 376 new refugees between Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration and last Wednesday. That's a 32 percent reduction from the 554 who arrived a year before, but nothing close to a 50 percent reduction.

What's more, 149 of those new arrivals come from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan or Syria – nations subject to Trump's travel ban before the federal courts ruled it was unconstitutional.

And now, the city's refugee resettlement agencies are gearing up for a growing wave of refugees under a new State Department announcement that further undercuts Trump's promise.

"We had a very busy May, and we will have a very busy June," said Karen Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services, one of Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies.

Church World Service, the national refugee agency affiliated with Journey's End, "was able to send us more people than we thought," Scott added.

That's exactly the opposite of what appeared likely after Trump's Jan. 27 executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending refugee resettlement for four months.

That executive order also cut the number of refugees admitted to America during the 2017 fiscal year to 50,000, less than half the 110,000 that former President Barack Obama had promised.

In light of Trump's order, resettlement agencies in Buffalo expected relatively few new refugees to arrive between the end of January and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. And they reacted accordingly, either reassigning staff to tasks other than refugee resettlement or laying off caseworkers.

But then the federal courts blocked Trump's efforts to shut off immigration from those Muslim-majority countries, as well as the four-month refugee moratorium. That meant that refugees who already had been vetted and prepared for a move to America could come only a little later than planned.

"They were already in the resettlement pipeline," said Marlene A. Schillinger, president of Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, which has been bringing refugees to Buffalo for many years. "They were already scheduled to come here."

Refugees endure a grueling two-year process, including multiple interviews and background checks, before being allowed to move to America. Still, the new arrivals from those Muslim-majority countries – especially those from war-torn Syria – arrived in a country whose new president warned they could be terror threats.

Refugees are a subset of legal immigrants, and are welcomed to the United States for humanitarian reasons after fleeing their troubled homelands.

Legal immigrants are people who resettle in the United States, nearly two-thirds do so because family members – who  already are U.S. citizens – sponsor them. Other immigrants come on work visas, including those who come for temporary, low-skill work as well as professionals who move here permanently.

Among the local organizations resettling the refugees is the International Institute of Buffalo, which has made special efforts to connect new arrivals with others from their home countries to help them adjust to their new home, said Eva Hassett, the agency's executive director.

Asked how those new arrivals are settling in, Hassett said: "As well as you can expect. Buffalo is a welcoming community."

Now Buffalo stands poised to welcome a growing number of refugees in the next few months. That's because the State Department last month quietly abandoned the weekly refugee admission quotas that had been in place earlier in the year.

Budgetary constraints previously limited the number of refugees coming to America in the current fiscal year. But a State Department spokesman said the temporary budget bill that Trump signed on May 5, which funds the government through Sept. 30, includes full funding for the nation's refugee resettlement program.

That returns the annual cap for refugees coming to America the same as the one Obama set: 110,000 for the year ending Sept. 30.

Refugee resettlement advocates doubt the nation will receive that number. They said it appears the Department of Homeland Security, which vets prospective refugees, slowed down that process in several countries in wake of Trump's earlier actions, which in turn could slow refugee arrivals in the United States.

Still, local resettlement agencies expect the pace of new refugee arrivals to grow in the coming months.

"We're just watching it from day to day," Schillinger said. "I'm hopeful more than optimistic."

That hope may not last long. Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 budget cuts the number of refugee admissions back down to 50,000, the minimum allowed under the federal law governing the resettlement program.

While Congress may decide to admit a larger number of refugees, Trump's budget said the number should be kept as low as possible for financial reasons.

"A large proportion of entrants arriving as refugees have minimal levels of education, presenting particular fiscal costs," Trump's budget summary stated.

The Trump budget cited a federal study that showed that of refugees who arrived nationwide in the previous five years, nearly half were on Medicaid in 2015, while 45 percent received welfare payments and 75 percent were on food stamps.

A Buffalo News study last year showed that refugee arrivals boosted social service costs locally, too – but that that was just one side of the equation. The study found that in the two West Side ZIP codes where many refugees had settled, job growth and business starts exceeded the county-wide average while property values boomed.

Besides, refugee advocates noted, America never before viewed refugee resettlement as a pure dollars-and-cents matter. Instead, politicians of both parties have long viewed it as a moral necessity for America to welcome people who had been driven from their homes overseas.

"No matter what, every refugee arrival is a life saved, and we all hope that arrivals will continue," Hassett said.

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