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Number of refugees coming to Buffalo set to drop again

WASHINGTON – The number of refugees resettling in Buffalo – which has already dropped by two-thirds under President Trump – is likely to plummet even further thanks to an administration decision to once again slash the number of outcasts it accepts from the world's most troubled countries.

Trump administration officials last week said they would cap the number of refugees resettling in America in fiscal 2020 at 18,000. That's down from 30,000 in the current year and 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration.

Some 588 refugees have resettled in Buffalo in the 365-day period ending Friday, federal figures show. So if the 40 percent cut in refugee resettlement nationwide equals a similar reduction locally, that means Buffalo can expect only about 350 refugee settlements in the year ahead.

In contrast, local refugee arrivals annually topped 1,800 toward the end of the Obama administration, providing Buffalo neighborhoods a boost after decades of population decline.

Officials at Buffalo's four refugee resettlement agencies were aghast at the latest cuts, which the administration announced late Thursday.

"There is no good reason to cut the refugee resettlement program," said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the city's four resettlement agencies. "There are more refugees seeking a place to be safe and successful than ever before in the history of the world. And these are new federal dollars coming into Buffalo, not requiring a local match, that get spent on rent for apartments, that gets spent on food and bus tokens and clothing."

Hassett noted that the refugee influx led to new businesses popping up in the neighborhoods where the newcomers settle. In fact, a 2016 Buffalo News analysis showed that the rates of job growth and business starts was higher in West Side neighborhoods with high refugee populations than they were countywide.

Refugees are legal immigrants who fled danger or desperation in their homeland and who come to America under a federal program formalized 40 years ago. Presidents of both parties had supported the program until Trump, who said last year: "The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility – won’t be."

To justify the latest cut in refugee resettlement, the administration cited the money and attention that it has to pay to would-be asylum-seekers who have flooded over the southern border in recent years.

"Our refugee officers are in the same division as our asylum officers," Ken Cuccinelli, Trump's acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters Friday. "So what we've already done is have refugee officers assisting asylum officers ... So if they're not doing refugee work, they will be doing asylum work."

But the administration's plans will likely put great strain on refugee families in Buffalo as well as the agencies that serve them.

"This means we're going to have an increased wait time for refugees who are waiting for family members to come to Buffalo," said Molly Carr, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, which also resettles refugees locally.

Meantime, the drop in refugee resettlements will mean less federal revenue for agencies like Jewish Family Service, thereby presenting them with a fiscal challenge, Carr said.

State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, has been able to get $2 million in funding for refugee resettlement agencies statewide in the past two state budgets. Ryan said Friday that he would try to get at least that much set aside next year in hopes of easing the financial burden the latest refugee cut will have on resettlement agencies across the state.

It's unclear just how bad that financial crunch will be, though, just because the Trump administration's announcement of its 2020 refugee plans were so vague.

In past years, presidents have set refugee admissions caps by region. But this time, Trump set aside 5,000 slots largely for victims of religious prosecution, 4,000 for refugees who have aided U.S. military efforts in Iraq, and 1,500 for people who fled El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

That leaves 7,500 slots for people from other parts of the world. But Karen Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services in Buffalo, noted some unusual language in the Trump administration announcement that could make it difficult to fulfill that goal.

The announcement never mentions would-be newcomers processed by the U.N. High Committee on Refugees, traditionally the largest source of refugees coming to the U.S. Instead the announcement says those 7,500 refugees will come through U.S. embassies across the world or through a program that reunites refugee families.

"UNHCR is a huge, huge referral source, much more so than any U.S. embassy would be," Scott said. "And so if we will no longer be taking referrals from UNHCR, this will significantly impact the pipeline for years to come."

Then again, Trump also signed an executive order that says governors and mayors must approve refugee resettlement in individual communities – and that might inadvertently boost the number of refugees coming to Buffalo a bit.

That's because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Byron W. Brown both have been strong supporters of refugee resettlement. So, if other communities end up shutting down refugee resettlement programs, the cities that still welcome those newcomers – like Buffalo – might see more of them.

"We might benefit a little bit from that," said William Sukaly, director of immigration and refugee assistance at Catholic Charities of Buffalo. "But how much might that be? It's hard to tell."

Even without that executive order, the number of refugees moving to Buffalo actually rebounded from 428 a year ago to 588 this year. Officials at the local agencies said the city ended up with more refugees this year partly because dozens of resettlement agencies in other parts of the country went out of business amid Trump's earlier cutbacks.

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