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Immigrants end the decline in Erie County population

WASHINGTON – Erie County’s population has started to grow slightly again after decades of decline, and it’s almost entirely because so many people are moving to town from overseas.

The county’s population as of last April was 922,835, an increase of 0.4 percent from the 2010 census, according to a new set of county population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

While that’s a modest population increase, it is also the first time since the 1960s that an upward population trend has developed in Erie County. What’s more, Erie County was the only county in Western New York to witness a population increase in the first four years of the decade.

And it never would have happened without a huge influx of refugees and other immigrants. According to the Census Bureau, 12,196 people from other countries moved to Erie County between 2010 and 2014 – more than making up for the fact that the county suffered a net loss of 8,394 longtime residents who decided to move away.

Add it all up, and the new Census numbers show a positive trend, said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

“It shows once again the continuing success we’ve had in creating and growing the county,” Poloncarz said. “The population growth is not huge, but compared to the loss of population in recent decades, it’s a good thing.”

It’s also an about-face in more ways than one.

The 2000 census showed metro Buffalo ranking last among the nation’s 48 largest metropolitan areas in gaining immigrants. That trend began to reverse itself in the 2000s, as local agencies bolstered their refugee resettlement efforts.

And now, refugee resettlement appears to be the major reason for the region’s population gain.

According to the New York State Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, 6,294 refugees settled in Erie County between 2010 and 2014. Meantime, the International Institute of Buffalo estimates that about 500 other refugees move to the city every year after first being resettled in other communities – adding another 2,500 or so refugees to the county since 2010.

Combine those two figures and it’s obvious that a strong majority of the new international migrants are refugees, many of them from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia.

Refugees frequently get social services help, such as food stamps and Medicaid, when they come to town, thereby prompting some resentment from some longtime taxpayers.

But Poloncarz – pointing to Buffalo’s Grant Street, a onetime wasteland now teeming with immigrant-run businesses – stressed that the wave of refugees is an overall positive for the county.

“This is really great news for the community,” he said. “I’m very pleased that this is happening. The people are bringing a whole new level of investment and opportunity into an area that hadn’t had any for a long time.”

Most working-age refugees quickly find work, said Denise Beehag, director of refugee resettlement at the International Institute, one of four agencies that resettles refugees locally. In fact, Beehag said the International Institute is currently trying to fill 108 job openings in the region and doesn’t have enough refugees to fill them.

Many are entry-level positions, but Beehag said that the availability of such jobs, along with the area’s reputation for affordable housing, has made Buffalo a draw for refugees who originally resettled in other communities.

“People know they can come here and buy a home,” she said. “It’s the American dream.”

Of course, refugees are not the only immigrants moving to Buffalo. No doubt some people are moving to town for jobs at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus or for work or study at the University at Buffalo, although there’s no data showing how many such people there might be, said Peter A. Rogerson, a professor of geography at UB.

In any case, the influx of immigrants now makes up for the long-term trend of young people – especially younger males – continuing to leave the Buffalo area.

While that continuing exodus might be disappointing, Rogerson said he saw some other highlights in the new Census estimates. Most notably, reversing another long-term trend, births now outnumber deaths in the county.

While a positive sign, Rogerson said that might just be a blip tied to the fact that the 2010 census showed an unexpectedly high number of people in their early- to mid-20s. Those people now would be moving into the prime years for starting a family, which would account for the uptick in births, Rogerson said.

Overall, “it’s definitely nice to see the numbers looking a little more positive,” Rogerson said. “It’s sort of a slow, steady turnaround.”

That turnaround has not been extended to Western New York’s other counties. Rural counties such as Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Wyoming all shrank by more than 2 percent in the first four years of the decade. Meanwhile, Niagara County shrank by an estimated 2,952 people, or 1.3 percent – which was enough to drag down the entire Buffalo metro area.

The population of the metro area – Erie and Niagara counties – was estimated at 1,136,360 as of 2014, which is up by a mere 207 people since the 2010 census. That meager growth meant that the Buffalo metro area, the nation’s 48th largest in 2010, ranked 51st in 2014.

Asked about Niagara County’s population struggles, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said it was a continuing byproduct of the decline of industry in the city and the decline of farming in other parts of the county.

To counter those trends, Dyster said he’s looking to the south, to Buffalo and Erie County.

“The thing that has been missing here is the trend toward repopulation in downtown,” Dyster said. “That’s been happening in Buffalo, but we’ve been a little behind the curve on that.”

Dyster said he also would like to see more immigrants settle in his city, just as they have in Buffalo.

“Our doors are open,” he said. “This is not just what’s happening in Buffalo now; it’s how our country was built. It’s a good all-American way of building communities that has worked for the long term.”