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Buffalo refugee admissions dwindling as Trump immigration crackdown spreads

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Friday implemented a new set of immigration restrictions that appears as if it will have a limited impact on Buffalo's newcomers from overseas – but the immigration skeptic in the White House has already had a big impact in stemming the flow of refugees to the city.

President Trump's expanded travel limits – which bar many immigrants from Burma and five other nations – include a loophole that allows refugees from those countries to move to Buffalo and other cities that welcome them.

But separately, Trump has cut refugee admissions so drastically that the number of these legally welcomed newcomers has already dwindled, and is likely to dwindle even further.

Some 474 outcasts from the world's trouble spots arrived in Buffalo through the federal refugee resettlement program last year, State Department figures show. That's up by two from the previous year – but down drastically from 2016, when 1,929 refugees settled in Buffalo.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, is among those unhappy about the cuts.

"We know from history and from other countries that immigration done in a legal and orderly way is an economic growth policy," Higgins said. "The Buffalo area depends on a robust, well-organized immigration strategy – and this flies in the face of all of that."

Numerous studies have shown that refugees eventually benefit the economies of the cities where they settle, but White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said the president has a good reason for limiting the legal resettlement of people displaced from their homes overseas.

"President Trump rightly and justly recognized that your communities are unique, and while some cities have the resources to adequately support refugees and help them be successful, not all communities can sustain the substantial and costly burden," she said in a statement in January.

Number of refugees coming to Buffalo set to drop again

Fewer refugees

Trump plans to trim the number of refugees resettling in America this year to 18,000, down from 30,000 last year and 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration.

That means the number of new arrivals in Buffalo will likely shrink again this year. And that's bad news for Buffalo, said Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the four nonprofit agencies in the city that resettle refugees.

Refugees from Burma and elsewhere have revitalized Buffalo neighborhoods like Black Rock/Riverside and the lower West Side while helping stabilize the city's population, but Hassett noted that more than the economy will be harmed if fewer newcomers move to Buffalo.

"It removes from the community the richness of culture and experience that comes from being around people whose life experiences are different from ours," she said.

The Trump resettlement cutbacks have an especially harsh impact on refugees in America who want to reunite with relatives, said Annette Shechler, director of communications at U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

"The wait time is much longer now," she said. Given increased vetting procedures put into place for refugees from some countries, "the wait time is anywhere from two to 10 years," she said.

The drop-off in admissions means that the number of refugees from Burma – long Buffalo's main source of refugees – has fallen from a peak of 746 in 2009 to only 112 last year, State Department figures show. The number of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo fell from 534 in 2016 to 208 last year, while the number of Somali newcomers plummeted from 382 in 2014 to only four in 2019.

But to hear the Trump administration tell it, further cutbacks remain necessary.

“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees,” the State Department said in a statement announcing the latest cuts.

New restrictions

Separate from the refugee cutbacks, the Trump administration late last month announced strict new limits on immigration from Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.

Citizens of those nations will no longer be eligible to apply for long-term immigrant visas sponsored by family members or employers. Nor will they be allowed to apply for the "diversity lottery," which sets aside a certain number of random immigration slots each year.

The new limits do not apply to those seeking short-term tourist, work or student visas.

Trump said restricting permanent immigration from those countries is a matter of security. Those nations – Burma included – don't meet the United States' strict standards for making sure would-be immigrants aren't terrorists.

"Burma does not issue electronic passports nor does it adequately share several types of information, including public-safety and terrorism-related information, that are necessary for the protection of the national security and public safety of the United States," Trump said in a statement announcing the decision. "Burma’s identified deficiencies create vulnerabilities that terrorists, criminals and fraudulent entrants could exploit to harm United States national security and public safety."

Trump administration officials said the new policy would not affect outcasts from Burma and other countries who already have been designated as refugees eligible to settle in the U.S. Nor will it affect newly arrived refugees who want to bring family members to the U.S., so long as those family members are classified as refugees as well.

But the policy could spell bad news for refugees from Burma who have already attained U.S. citizenship. Thanks to the change, they will no longer be able to sponsor nonrefugee relatives from Burma who want to move to the United States. And the Rev. John L. McCullough, president and CEO of Church World Service, is unhappy about that.

“Keeping families apart, simply because of where they come from, replaces that hope with despair," said McCullough, who heads an organization that resettles refugees in the U.S.

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