Refugee centers in Upstate NY face funding crisis

Feb 15, 2017

Assemblyman Sean Ryan D- Buffalo and other lawmakers call for state help to fund refugee resettlement centers, at the Capitol's Million Dollar Staircase in Albany on Wednesday
Credit Matt Ryan / WXXI News

A group of upstate lawmakers are asking the state to step in and fund refugee resettlement programs, that they say have been caught up in President Trump’s travel ban and the resulting chaos.

The federal government funds refugee resettlement centers, located in cities in upstate New York. But, under the rules, the money for staff is based on the number of refugees coming in. When President Trump’s travel ban briefly froze the entry of refugees from the seven majority Muslim countries, the funding for the resettlement centers  dried up too.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan is from the Buffalo area, where 1,800 refugees resettled in 2016. He says the ban sent “shock waves” through New York’s refugee resettlement system, and that people already in the US still need the vital services.

“Without funding, the agencies wouldn’t be able to service the refugees who have already come to New York or are currently being resettled,” Ryan said.

Ryan was joined by lawmakers representing Rochester, Utica and Albany. They are asking the state to step in to bridge the gap, and provide $12 million for the centers to keep helping people who have newly arrived in New York. They say there have already been lay offs of resettlement workers. The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has let go of six employees.

Jill Peckinpaw is with the Albany branch of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants. She says the work involves everything from locating an apartment so those getting off the plane have a place to live, to simple, everyday life, everything for how to use the coin operated washer at the laundromat, to how to get on a bus.

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi of Utica says New York owes a debt to its most recent refugees. He says the 15,000 or so who have resettled in his city in the past several years have “revitalized” whole neighbors.

Many upstate cities would be an empty shell if it wasn’t for our refugee and immigrant comminutes,” Brindisi said.

Even though the President’s executive order on the travel ban has been stayed by the federal appeals court, Assemblyman Ryan says the flow of people settling in New York has not resumed in full, and the future is very uncertain.

The light switch didn’t just turn back on,” said Ryan. “It’s a multi week process to get you from a displaced person camp in Thailand into America.”

The gap in the settlement programs impacts upstate, because the federal government decides where to send the refugees, and has determined that New York City and other downstate areas were just too expensive.

The lawmakers say the refugees are fully documented, and that many have spent years in refugee camps while they were vetted to come to the U.S.

The legislators, all Assembly Democrats, say Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is supportive of their plan, but it has to also pass the state Senate, which is led by a coalition of Republicans and break away Democrats. And so far, they have not taken a position.