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Viewpoints: Refugees are powering Buffalo’s revitalization

Viewpoints: Refugees are powering Buffalo’s revitalization

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By David Dyssegaard Kallick and Eva Hassett


When you think about refugees, your first thought is probably not about Buffalo’s economic revitalization.

That’s as it should be. Refugees have suffered through the most horrific experiences on the planet. Helping people who fled Burma or Somalia find a new home here, and realize new life opportunities, is a part of what this country is all about.

But make no mistake, refugee resettlement is also very good for Buffalo’s economy, and that of other cities in upstate New York. Which means it is good for all of us.

Start with the basics. The biggest challenge facing Buffalo is population decline. In 1950, Buffalo had 578,000 residents. In 2015, the population was 283,000, less than half that number. That means empty and deteriorating houses, schools and shops; lower tax revenues to support infrastructure; and fewer working-age residents to support job growth.

Immigrants and refugees are already reversing population loss. Over the past 15 years, Buffalo’s U.S.-born population continued to decline, while its immigrant population grew. It didn’t quite balance out, but it’s getting close – between 2000 and 2015, the U.S.-born population dropped by 22,000 while the number of immigrants grew by 12,000. And Erie County’s population grew for the first time in decades in 2014 – because of immigrants and refugees.

Refugees need support to get established, but they do well once they’re on their feet. A recent national study by the Fiscal Policy Institute and Center for American Progress shows this for Somali, Burmese, Hmong and Bosnian refugee communities. The study showed that refugees get jobs quickly, and make substantial gains in earnings over time. Homeownership rates are high: three of the four refugee groups studied had higher rates of home ownership than U.S.-born families after 10 years.

And refugees and immigrants are not only workers, they’re entrepreneurs. This is true both for large businesses – 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in 2017 were founded by immigrants or their children – and smaller ones.

Neighborhoods turn around because of immigrant business investment: in Buffalo, we see this on Grant Street, Hertel Avenue, Tonawanda Street and in the Broadway-Fillmore area. As neighborhoods improve, the region becomes a more attractive destination for all.

President Trump’s order to cut refugee arrivals to 50,000 and restrict immigration is a humanitarian tragedy. It also has strong negative consequences for the economies of Buffalo and other upstate New York cities.

First, it stops millions in federal revenue that comes to Buffalo and is spent here. Second, it cuts funds that pay for jobs. Resettlement agencies are already laying off workers because of these cuts. Some agencies will undoubtedly close. Third, and most important, it leaves the refugees who help revitalize Buffalo without the support they need to do so. Case management services – employment and entrepreneurial support, help with homeownership, access to primary care, orientation to the United States – won’t be there. Refugees and immigrants won’t easily integrate, and won’t contribute as quickly. Buffalo will lose.

Buffalo has a great reputation as a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants. As a result, the city attracts “secondary migrants” from elsewhere in the U.S. on top of those who arrive directly. Buffalo has a critical opportunity to capitalize on this reputation – but only if we have the ability to help those who want to come and succeed here.

Last week, Assembly Members Sean Ryan, Anthony Brindisi, Patricia Fahy, William Magnarelli and Harry Bronson and their colleagues across upstate proposed a better alternative: the governor and the State Legislature should fund resettlement agencies facing these federal revenue cuts, and provide additional funding to assist agencies that support refugee integration.

The costs would not be overwhelming: $12 million would preserve capacity and fund extended case management across upstate as well as expand legal support to help with naturalization. This aid would go overwhelmingly to upstate. Last year, 90 percent of refugees in New York State were resettled upstate, where housing costs are lower and refugee resettlement agencies have the capacity to resettle newcomers.

So, by all means, when you think of refugee resettlement, think first about the humanitarian good it does and how it figures into your life, maybe even into your own family history. But don’t underestimate the important role refugees play in boosting the local economy. If it’s not your first thought about refugees in Buffalo, there’s a good reason it should be your second.

David Dyssegaard Kallick is the director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative. Eva Hassett is the executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.

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