Refugee Drop Hits Home By Luke Perry and Elizabeth Avila
American public perceptions can mistakenly link refugees with terrorism. A refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” as explained in Article I of the 1951 Refugee Convention. By definition refugees are escaping horrible circumstances in their home country and undertake a “rigorous vetting process” prior to coming to America.
President Trump has cited national security concerns in attempting to use executive action to bar people from seven Muslim countries for 90 days (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, & Yemen), and ban all refugees for 120 days, including Syrian refugees indefinitely. Refugee admissions have plummeted under the Trump administration even though related executive orders have been frozen by federal courts due to their illegality.
This has a direct impact on local communities, organizations, and businesses. For instance, “refugee resettlement as an economic development tool” is “a Rust Belt revival strategy” that was “pioneered” by Utica, New York. Local leaders, Republican and Democrat, have maintained this position, even as national attitudes hardened, particularly among conservatives, who constitute a majority in surrounding Oneida County.
The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, a nonprofit organization in Utica, has helped to resettle more than 15,000 refugees since it began in 1981. Shelly Callahan, Executive Director, describes the current situation as “one of the most chaotic” she has experienced.
The center is funded per capita, which means per arriving refugee. The organization is currently at about one-fourth of projected yearly arrivals. If nothing changes for the rest of the year, then the organization will lose approximately three fourths of the funding for the staff this year. Thus far, the staff has been cut in half.
Local entities have raised money to help, but whether this will be enough and the outcome of resulting legal disputes surrounding Trump’s executive orders, remain open questions.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. Elizabeth Avila is a recent graduate in the Department of Government at Utica College who interned this year at The Mohawk Valley Refugee Center.