If any place in New York – or the United States, for that matter – should be eager to welcome refugees from Afghanistan, it is Buffalo, a city that was built by the labor of immigrants and which is growing because immigrants continue to find it a special place to land.
Buffalo will have that chance, with Wednesday’s announcement that 350 evacuees are likely to settle here over the next few months. It’s good news for them and for Western New York.
Results of the 2020 census confirm what generations of immigrants have found to be true: Buffalo is a welcoming city where they can put down roots, create new lives and make a difference in their new town. At one time, it was Italians, Germans, Poles and others making their homes on the eastern end of Lake Erie; lately it’s been Burmese and Bangladeshis. All of them bring something notable to Western New York.
Now, it’s time to open our arms to Afghans who are fleeing their crumbling country as the United States pulls out of a war nearly 20 years old. Many of them worked with the United States and qualify for refugee status, given the threat to their lives under Taliban rule.
It’s long been evident that refugees and other immigrants are a net addition to Buffalo. While they may consume public services early in their lives here, once settled and able to communicate well, they become contributors, opening businesses, enlivening the culture and otherwise helping to fill the gaps left by decades of population loss.
But what was long evident came with numerical confirmation this year as the results of the census showed Buffalo growing for the first time in 70 years. It was more than just a little growth, too: The city’s population expanded by 6.5% in the past decade, to 278,349 from 261,310 in 2010.
What is even more encouraging is that the largest pockets of growth are in what have been some of the city’s most stressed neighborhoods: Broadway Fillmore added more than 3,100 people, making it one of Buffalo’s fastest growing areas. Also expanding are the populations of Masten Park, Delavan Grider and Riverside.
The growth came principally from Asians and Hispanics, who settled in distressed neighborhoods where land costs were lower. While future data from the census will provide greater detail about the city’s growth, the change is both obvious and approaching transformational.
“There’s so much energy and so many positive things happening that I really think we’re essentially at the tipping point,” said Stephen Karnath, executive director at Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services. “We’re at the point where we are starting to see significant investment – sometimes in plain sight, and sometimes bubbling beneath the surface.”
There were surely other reasons for the city’s growth over the last decade, as the state invested in Buffalo’s revival and residents began to shed their doubts about their own ability to thrive. All of them need to be understood and amplified over the coming decade so that the city can continue to grow.
Prime among these, though, must be immigration. It’s a primary engine of growth and, if any city understands its value – and knows enough to ignore the often racist fears of critics – it’s this one.
Immigration, here and around the country, was choked off during the Trump administration, which viewed all newcomers with suspicion. President Biden has promised to reverse those policies. One place to launch a new decade of growth is by seeking out and attracting additional refugees and other immigrants from long-suffering Afghanistan.
Some of those people, we owe. They put their lives and the families’ safety at risk by helping the United States in its work there. With the Biden administration’s plausible but poorly executed decision to end that war, interpreters and others are at mortal risk. Others will simply want to leave, given the abusive nature and practices of the Taliban. There is abundant evidence that girls and women are at exceptional risk.
Buffalo should have its welcome mat out for these people, and others from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and other areas. We know how to absorb them into this community, how to help them adjust and then to succeed.
And we know that they help to make Buffalo a bigger, better and more interesting place.
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