After concerns were raised following the terrorist attacks in Paris about refugees settling in Erie County, an informational meeting was held by Erie County lawmakers to get more information about refugee screening, security, and cost to the county.
Thursday morning’s meeting focused on the refugees that are coming to Buffalo from places like war-torn Syria. So far this year, 1,500 refugees from all over the world have been settled in Erie County, 4,000 have been settled in NYS, and 85,000 have been settled in the U.S.
“If our city is going to grow, we need to accept refugees,” said Eva Hassett of the International Institute of Buffalo. "No major city over the last four decades has grown or increased without an increase in its immigrant population. So if our plan is to grow, this would suggest we need to talk about supporting the refugee and immigrant population."
In fact, Erie County’s population has swelled by 12,000, thanks to refugees, who have sparked the first upward population movement in decades. Refugees are attracted to Western New York because of the low cost of living and the amount of available low-wage jobs.
But some lawmakers, including Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, are raising the red flag, saying that these refugees pose a risk. At least one of the terrorists in the attacks on Paris was a Syrian refugee.
"I have no religious bias or anything like that. My concern has to do with the fact that I know from speaking to someone in Homeland Security that ISIS has claimed to have 4,000 terrorists disguised as refugees and we potentially have them coming here to Western New York," he said.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz explained that the county government only helps refugees resettle, but the decision on where they resettle is made by the federal government. “Neither the County Executive nor any branch of Erie County government has any say in whether any refugee is resettled in our community, nor can we prevent a legal immigrant from being resettled here,” he stated.
“All of these people have been vetted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, before being admitted to our country and placed in any community," Poloncarz said in a statement.
Officials from refugee agencies echoed that, saying there are stringent security checks in place for all refugees, especially those coming from Syria. And they’re very concerned about recent cases of harassment. An official with Westside International Soccer says there have been cases where adults have heckled refugee children.
Poloncarz said he's "very disappointed" over statements made by lawmakers, including Lorigo, about refugees, saying they seem to be "stoking the fires of Islamophobia."
“Many of the refugees fleeing Syria are Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians who fled their country because they had no choice. While we all must remain vigilant, it is important to note that our region has a long history of being a new home for immigrants from around the world who fled civil war or faced persecution in their homeland, including Iraqis, Burmese, Somalis, and during the past two years a small contingent of Syrians,” Poloncarz said.
And in fact, the International Institute revealed Thursday that no Syrian refugees have been resettled in Buffalo, and none are in the pipeline. So far, only 11 have been resettled in New York State.
But refugees continue to come to the Queen City and that has a positive impact on Erie County finances. So far this year, the federal government has given $6.4 million to the county for the refugees who have resettled here.
Anna Ireland of the Jericho Road Heritage Center said, "When we choose to invest in the refugee community, they turn around and invest in our communities and it has made our communities stronger."
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