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Potential Trump refugee cutback could affect Buffalo

WASHINGTON — The number of refugees coming to Buffalo in the next year is likely to fall to its lowest level in more than a decade, under President Trump's pending plan to again cut America's program to welcome the world's outcasts.

Trump is expected to announce later this week that he will cap refugee admissions at 45,000 in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

That would be the lowest cap since the current refugee admission program was established 38 years ago — and would likely result in the smallest number of refugees moving to America since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to refugee resettlement cutbacks in the next two years.

Refugee resettlement officials expect the Trump administration policy to filter directly down to Buffalo, which would welcome a projected 884 refugees in fiscal 2018 — less than half the number that arrived in 2016, and the lowest number since fiscal 2008.

Trump administration officials have indicated it would cost too much to bring in a larger number of refugees.

Experts familiar with population trends in Buffalo said Trump's decision could be costly to Buffalo in another way.

"There's a big difference between gaining population and losing population, and for Buffalo, this could be that difference," said David D. Kallick, director of the immigration policy initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, an Albany think tank.

Buffalo has been losing population for decades. But the city's population has almost stabilized in recent years, thanks in large part to an influx of refugees and other immigrants.

Between 2010 and 2014, the city's foreign-born population grew by nearly a third. Mayor Byron W. Brown has said it's possible the city will even start growing again by the end of the decade, partly from foreign-born newcomers.

Now that's less likely thanks to Trump's decision, said Kallick, who has studied the impact of refugee resettlement in Buffalo.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that Trump would move the refugee cap down to 45,000 after an internal debate in which immigration hardliners wanted it to fall as low as 25,000.

The move isn't a surprise. As one of his first moves as president, Trump slashed the number of refugees this year from the 110,000 that former President Obama wanted to 50,000.

In a speech at the United Nations, last week, Trump hinted another cut would be coming.

“We seek an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people, and which enables their eventual return to their home countries, to be part of the rebuilding process,” the president said. “For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”

Buffalo-area refugee resettlement leaders and politicians have said refugees have brought new life to the city, and there's some evidence.

Refugees started pouring into Buffalo in the mid-2000s, after the city's four refugee resettlement agencies decided to ramp up their efforts in hopes of boosting the city's population.

Within a few years, refugee-owned groceries and other businesses opened in once-vacant storefronts on Grant and Niagara streets, as the West Side and Black Rock/Riverside came to be home to thousands of newcomers from Burma and other troubled nations.

The two refugee-dominated neighborhoods experienced job and business growth higher than the countywide average as well as a boom in real estate prices, a Buffalo News analysis showed last year.

Now, that growth may slow as the number of refugees shrinks.

"Unless you're growing the population, you're not growing the economy," noted Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, a refugee resettlement agency.

The slowdown could mean less business for health clinics and other institutions set up to serve the refugee community, said Bill Sukaly, program coordinator for refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities of Buffalo.

"Some of the employers we work with count on a continuing supply of refugee workers," Sukaly added. "So it's going to have a big economic impact. It's a pretty big ripple effect."

That impact will be felt most severely at the refugee resettlement agencies, which laid off staff when Trump initially cut the refugee program. The agencies may have to cut more employees in 2018 as the federal funds they receive dwindle.

The federal government recently canceled plans to begin refugee resettlement in Niagara Falls through Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, and Marlene A. Schillinger, the agency's president, said she fears that there are worse days ahead for her agency's refugee program.

"I was driving around town today and I was thinking to myself: how are we going to make it?" Schillinger said.

Trump's move could mean a short-term gain for county taxpayers.

The Buffalo News found last year that social service costs for refugees increased tenfold in Erie County over the decade when increasing numbers of refugees were moving to Buffalo. So with fewer refugees coming to town, social service costs will be lower than they otherwise would have been.

Short-term cost savings appear to be one of the Trump administration's reasons for cutting the refugee program.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a memo earlier this month that covered the cost of refugee resettlement.

“In an average year over the 10-year period, per-capita refugee costs for major HHS programs totaled $3,300,” the memo said. “Per-person costs for the U.S. population were lower, at $2,500, reflecting a greater participation of refugees in HHS programs, especially during their first four years” in the United States.

But the New York Times reported the government released that document only after quashing a longer, more detailed one, that looked at both the costs and benefits of refugee resettlement.

Refugees contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government between 2005 and 2014 through the payment of federal, state and local taxes, that report said, according to the Times. Refugees had a positive net economic impact of $63 billion nationwide during those 10 years, that report found.

The Trump administration's refugee cutback comes at a time when the world faces an unprecedented refugee crisis.

The United Nations refugee agency reported this June that a record 65.6 million people had been driven from their homes. And that was before a crackdown by the Burmese government forced more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.

Binga Hassan, a Rohingya refugee in Buffalo, said he was disappointed that the American government would be cutting the number of refugees that it welcomes to its shores.

"The Burmese government, they are killing the Rohingya people," Hassan said. "The United States should be helping the Rohingya people."

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