By Sean Piazza
Nearly twenty years ago, my family left with a wave of people from Western New York – but 100 years earlier, my ancestors were the product of searching for economic opportunity – and a sense of belonging – in arriving in Buffalo.
Harsh conditions in Ireland, the cause of which are now storied, were once attributed to the victims, not the perpetrators. The British had fully deprived Ireland’s Catholics – which included my family – the right to worship, speak their language, own land or horses. When deprivation of food, and indeed the right to life, scourged the island – those people took to American shores to find a better life for their families.
Dehumanizing caricatures met these people when they arrived. “Irish need not apply,” now a source of unapologetic pride for Irish descendants – was stoked by fear, over fact. It comes back into view in the St. Patrick’s Day season.
The work I do today with the refugee resettlement program could not be more personal – and the crisis the world faces, with the same factors of state oppression, religious discrimination, and the withholding of basic rights to “belong” or even live, can ring personal to many of us. The refugee crisis of others today is the refugee crisis of our own, decades and centuries earlier.
Nearly a century after we’d resettled, in the nineties and aughties, my aunt and I became the first to go to college.
Our country, luckily, has made educated changes to avoid the mistakes of our past and expedite the road to success for refugees – to the benefit of all of us. Realizing the collective benefits of immigrants and refugees, the modern refugee resettlement program was a critically important remedy. That’s something that’s turned the economic tide in Buffalo, an antidote to the economic distress that forced my family out.
President Ronald Reagan was one of the most passionate defenders of the program in 1980, and presidents after, strengthened a vetting system that is unrivaled in our world — and extreme in any sense of the word, taking years for a group that counted 75 percent women and children in 2016. Equally important, once refugees arrive, it also created a pathway to self-sufficiency that cuts the rate of success – which took my family a century – to one generation.
The government’s own report found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. They also contributed $20.9 billion in taxes, according to the New American Economy, and by the time a refugee has been in the country at least 25 years, their median household income reaches $67,000—a full $14,000 more than the median income of U.S. households overall. With great credit to this life-saving and opportunity-creating program, it is taking one generation to succeed, not four, as it did for my family. Global moral leadership is (and should be) the primary focus of the program, but economic impacts show there’s a double impact.
And that’s what brought my own family back to the region two years ago: a dynamic and exciting center of opportunity and optimism – and the famous ‘good neighbors’ – that attracted us a century earlier.
One year out from the first iteration of the travel ban, it is clear that our nation operates in cycles on immigration. Our collective refugee and immigrant story should serve as a personal reminder that paying it forward when faced with the opposition our ancestors faced– through welcoming policy – reaped benefits for all who came before us, and will do so for us now.
Sean Piazza of Ellicottville brings a family history to his work with refugees.