WASHINGTON – At least one and perhaps two of Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies could be forced to stop bringing newcomers to town as the Trump administration strives to make permanent its cuts in aid to the world's outcasts.
After reducing refugee admissions to the U.S. by more than two-thirds, the administration is now targeting the agencies that help those who flee the world's wars as they resettle in America. The State Department notified resettlement agencies of that move on Nov. 30, saying some cities have "excess resettlement capacity" now that the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees coming to America from a peak of 110,000 annually under former President Barack Obama to 30,000 next year.
State Department officials named Buffalo, along with Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, Clearwater, Fla., and suburban Oakland, Calif., as among the cities with excess capacity. Those who work at Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies said their national affiliates have told them the State Department decision probably means that at least one and possibly two of the local agencies will lose federal funding.
That possibility has led to unease at Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies – which have brought more than 10,000 newcomers to the city over the past 15 years, helping to stem the city's population decline.
"We've always been told that Buffalo is a national model for refugee resettlement, that we represent the best practices," said Karen Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services. "To be put in this situation now is difficult."
Marlene A. Schillinger, president of Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, agreed.
"It's a nightmare," Schillinger said.
Officials at the four Buffalo agencies said they are tentatively drawing up contingency plans for what they would do if their agencies get pushed out of refugee resettlement. But those plans remain vague, because no one knows which agencies will lose funding.
"I can't really say what we would do because I don't really know what will happen," said Schillinger, who noted that about a third of her agency's work involves refugee resettlement.
Those who run the four refugee resettlement agencies – which also include the International Institute of Buffalo and Catholic Charities of Buffalo – said they may know by the end of the week which nonprofit organization will lose its federal contracts to resettle refugees.
"We haven't really heard a whole lot about anything," said Bill Sukaly, who runs Catholic Charities of Buffalo's refugee resettlement program. "I can't really speculate on what will happen."
The four local agencies are affiliated with nine national organizations that bring refugees to America. The Trump administration initially wanted to shut down some of those nine national resettlement groups, but instead said on Nov. 30 that those national organizations should decide on their own which of their local affiliates should be shut down.
"The State Department has warned us that if the nine agencies do not propose an acceptable strategy to close sites in areas with 'excess capacity,' the federal government will make those decisions for us," Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said in an email to its local affiliates, including Jewish Family Service in Buffalo.
Hetfield said in the email that the State Department asked the national resettlement agencies to determine which local sites to close by the end of this week. But he also encouraged local resettlement agencies to speak out against the coming moves.
"The Department of State plans to move very quickly, however," he added.
The State Department has not publicly announced its effort to force local resettlement agencies to shut down, and spokespeople from the agency did not return a request for comment this week.
But the uncertain future of Buffalo's refugee resettlement agencies prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to appeal to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for help on Tuesday.
"I urge you to keep all of the resettlement agencies in Buffalo open to continue providing critical services to vulnerable newcomers to this country while helping fuel the economic revitalization of our communities," the governor said in a lettter to Pompeo.
Defunding agencies that serve refugees would be in keeping with a philosophy that Stephen Miller, a presidential aide who has helped devise the Trump administration's refugee and immigration policies, spelled out in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
"With the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we could help 12 in their home region," Miller said.
President Trump further refined his philosophy on refugees while speaking at a meeting of the National Space Council in June.
"The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility – won’t be," Trump said. "You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch."
The Trump administration regards refugee resettlement as a last resort rather than a central option for people who have been driven out of their homes worldwide because of war or other conflicts.
That being the case, the people who run Buffalo's refugee resettlement agencies are worried – and not just for the future of their agencies and the people who work there, but also for the city in general.
Refugee resettlement has stabilized Buffalo's population and entire neighborhoods, said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute.
In fact, a 2016 Buffalo News study found that job and business growth on Buffalo's West Side and Black Rock/Riverside – where many of the newcomers have settled – exceeded the county-wide averages over five years.
Now, though, the number of refugees coming to Buffalo is dropping precipitously – from 460 in the first half of 2017 to 245 in the first half of this year.
That number is expected to dwindle even more in 2019, especially if fewer agencies are working to bring refugees to Buffalo.
"It's very hard to see this happening when refugees have had such a beneficial effect on our economy and culture," Hassett said.