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Advocates tell Erie County lawmakers that refugees should be embraced, not feared

Refugee service providers and the Erie County Department of Social Services worked hard Thursday morning to debunk myths and concerns regarding the influx of refugees – particularly Syrian refugees – in a hearing before the County Legislature.

In opening remarks, they pointed out that Erie County’s refugee resettlement efforts result in millions of dollars in federal revenue to the county and that many Social Services benefits refugees receive are reimbursed at the federal level for the first eight months.

They also stated that the only reason Erie County saw a recent increase in its population numbers for the first time since the 1960s is because of its refugee resettlement efforts.

Nearly 1,500 refugees were settled in the county by agencies last year, said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, speaking on behalf of all four area refugee resettlement organizations.

Of Syrian refugees, however, only 11 have been resettled in New York State so far, she said.

Though the world has witnessed 60 million “displaced persons” who have fled their home countries because of war and persecution, only a small fraction of them are legally classified as refugees, and an even smaller fraction are vetted and allowed into the United States, said Janice Owen, a local representative with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“I cannot stress enough, the images on the nightly news are not the refugees to whom we refer,” she told legislators.

She informed the Legislature that all refugees go through the most stringent vetting process of any immigrant group and that an extra layer of review applies specifically to Syrian refugees.

Of nearly 200,000 people who receive some type of Social Services benefit in Erie County, 15,144 – or 7.5 percent – are noncitizens, a category that includes nonrefugees as well, said Deputy Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo posed numerous questions regarding safety and cost. In the original resolution passed by the Legislature, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, the Comptroller’s Office and representatives with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were asked to attend the hearing. None agreed to attend.

In response to questions by legislators, refugee advocates also said that half of the world’s refugee population is composed of women and children and that the majority of refugee families coming to the United States are not single, military-age men.