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Resettlement agencies to be funded in 2019 as flow of refugees dwindles

Buffalo's four resettlement programs will be funded in 2019, after all.

The State Department's change of heart means Catholic Charities of Buffalo, the International Institute of Buffalo, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County and Journey’s End Refugee Services will continue to assist refugees coming to Buffalo.

The State Department informed the agencies' national affiliates of its decision.

A letter the State Department sent in late November indicated some cities had excess resettlement capacity, with Buffalo one of six cities named.

The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees coming to the United States from a high of 110,000 annually under former President Barack Obama to 30,000 next year.

"We continue to believe Buffalo is an amazingly welcoming and supportive place for refugees," said Eva Hassett, the International Institute's executive director. "The incredible resiliency of our refugee clients drives our own commitment to them, and makes our community stronger and better."

"We're very, very happy that our colleagues will remain in operation to serve the needs of refugees who have meant so much to the revitalization of the City of Buffalo," said Dennis Walczyk, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Buffalo.

"Even though the number of people who have been allowed into the U.S. has been reduced dramatically over the last two years, the needs of those who are here remain," he said.

An array of local and statewide politicians joined other voices in urging continued funding for the agencies.

Those writing letters of support — or making direct appeals — included Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Brian Higgins, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Byron W. Brown, State Sen. Tim Kennedy, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"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," Cuomo said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"They all went on record and said, no, refugees are important to Buffalo, having programs that help them is also important," Hassett said. "That's unbelievable, and great evidence of the love and support that this community has for refugees."

The number of refugees coming to Buffalo dropped from 460 in the first half of 2017 to 245 in the first half of 2018.

The decline has put a strain on the agencies, since funding for clients and agencies is paid per capita. The reduction of refugees now coming into Buffalo means resettlement agencies are getting less revenue to support case management staff.

"We wish the numbers could be higher, not selfishly, but because there are 22-plus million refugees in the world who are looking for a place to start a new life, and Buffalo is a marvelous place to start a new life," Hassett said.

Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies have brought more than 10,000 newcomers to the city over the past 15 years, helping stem the city's population decline.

"The sad thing for us is that while we will continue the program, the number of arrivals will still be very low," she said. "We hope that someday the United States will come back to a national realization that welcoming refugees is important to the country."

The four local agencies are affiliated with nine national organizations that bring refugees to the United States.

The Trump administration initially wanted to shut down some of the national groups, but changed its mind to say they should instead decide on which local affiliates to shutter.

"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 of Buffalo.

"We've always been told that Buffalo is a national model for refugee resettlement, that we represent the best practices," Karen Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services, said at the time. "To be put in this situation now is difficult."

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