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Editorial: Plugging our economic pipeline

“Our country is full,” President Trump said last April during a briefing on immigrants seeking entry to the U.S. at the southern border.

The surge in people seeking asylum “is overwhelming our immigration system, and we can’t let that happen,” he said. “We can’t take you anymore.”

“Full” is not a description that applies to Buffalo Niagara. Our region has neighborhoods with aging housing stock that need more than a fresh coat of paint – they need fresh energy from new residents. We have jobs going unfilled.

Our region has gained in population since 2013, thanks in good part to refugees and other immigrants settling here. The administration’s new clampdown on the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the United States is like throwing up a speed bump for economic development here.

A story in The News on Sunday detailed the new quotas. A total of 18,000 refugees will be allowed to resettle in the United States in the fiscal year that began Tuesday. The figure was 30,000 this past year and 110,000 in the final year of the Obama administration. Trump’s directive is the lowest number in the four-decade history of the federal refugee resettlement program, which has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support.

The Trump administration’s rules are calculated to appeal to his political base in the run-up to the 2020 election. They may or may not help his poll numbers, but they add up to a letdown for our region. This is not illegal immigration, but a humane and economically beneficial program.

First there is the humane argument. Our “City of Good Neighbors” has traditionally been a welcoming place for immigrants, whether Germans and Poles, Irish and Italians, African Americans or people from the many other nations who have settled here in recent years.

Doing good has meant our community doing well. It has been shown repeatedly that refugees and other immigrants provide a net gain economically over time. A 2016 Buffalo News analysis concluded that the rates of job growth and business starts were higher in West Side neighborhoods with high refugee populations than they were in the county as a whole.

The region’s four primary resettlement agencies receive federal money to help refugees get established here. The services they provide amount more to a hand up than a handout, and there is generally a good return on investment.

The administration rationalizes its cuts to the refugee numbers by saying it needs more resources to deal with a backlog of asylum-seekers at our southern border. However, the asylum and refugee programs are entirely separate. Those seeking asylum must wait for hearings at asylum courts and only about 15% of them will be admitted to the country. Refugees are individuals who have been vetted and approved for entry to America, often after waiting for years. Letting fewer into the country won’t affect the backlogs at asylum courts.

The tighter quotas will also affect refugees already settled here, making many wait additional time for family members from their home countries to join them. Putting extra strain on some of our newest residents, many of whom are working and making a contribution to the economy, is not productive.

Buffalo has positive momentum. The tourism industry is flourishing, and new development is happening along the waterfront that we could not have envisioned 20 years ago. But we can’t bring the city’s renaissance to more neighborhoods without more people.

Our region is full of opportunity and we need to keep the welcome mat out.

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