UTICA, N.Y. — Over the last few decades, as a manufacturing decline left homes vacant and storefronts dark, New York’s upstate cities opened their doors to refugees. The influx, while modest, gave new life to neighborhoods, helped alleviate labor shortages and shored up city budgets.
But that rejuvenating bounce for cities such as Utica, Buffalo and Syracuse ended after the Trump administration drastically cut the number of refugees allowed into the country. New York received 1,281 refugees in the last fiscal year, compared with 5,026 just two years before, according to the State Department. Officials in those cities worried they had lost a small but important bulwark against population decline.
Now, some are testing out a new strategy: luring refugees who have settled in other parts of the United States to move to New York. They are advertising job placement, English language and housing services, hoping to draw enough people to offset the shortfall.
New York is not alone in trying novel ways to reverse its dwindling population. Maine, for example, has offered an outstretched hand to refugees in hope of expanding its workforce. Vermont has dangled $10,000 grants to entice people to move to the state and work from home, in a bid to attract young tech workers. And Wyoming is trying to woo people born there back home by deploying recruiters to help them find jobs.
But as the pool of refugees shrinks under Trump, New York has positioned itself to have an advantage over other places. Cuts in federal funding meant resettlement agencies in other parts of the country had to shrink or close. In New York, the state stepped in and has been funding those agencies since 2017. They now can provide services to more refugees, an incentive for people to move to New York from elsewhere.
“If the message gets out that we have job opportunities, and it’s a great place to raise a family, that’s what we want,” said Anthony Picente, the Oneida County executive, a Republican whose county includes Utica. “That is the message we are moving out there.”
Though Picente believes in cracking down on illegal immigration, he and other state officials are concerned that curtailing legal avenues for immigrants could harm small American cities.
“Why are we capping the legal point of entry unless we can’t handle them, and no one is saying we can’t handle them?” Picente said.
While asylum-seekers arrive on their own and then make a case for protection, refugees are vetted by the United Nations, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department while they are overseas. Those agencies then determine if a person will be granted the right to come to the United States.
Since assuming office, Trump has sharply reduced the number of refugees. The cap was set at 30,000 this fiscal year, down from 110,000 in the last fiscal year of the Obama administration. It is the lowest ceiling a president has ever placed on refugee admissions.
In an era when immigration policy has drawn sharp political lines throughout the country, enticing refugees to New York has held bipartisan local appeal.
“The real fear for upstate cities is that if we don’t keep our population growing, we will fall into an endless cycle of decline,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo. “We’re not at that tipping point yet, but we are very close.”
Between 1950 and 2000, Rochester and Syracuse lost roughly 30% of their populations, Utica lost about 40% of inhabitants and Buffalo lost half its residents, according to the New York state comptroller’s office. Buffalo’s decline was the fourth highest nationwide.
But as refugees moved into abandoned homes and leased empty storefronts, deserted neighborhoods in these cities started to transform — although these towns have not seen enough growth to reach population numbers of nearly 70 years ago.
Today, Buffalo’s Grant Street, which was once near vacant, bustles with supermarkets and craft stores that serve many of the immigrants who have moved into the surrounding neighborhood. The street’s West Side Bazaar, a popular lunch and shopping spot, is filled with vendors who sell hand-woven tapestries and beaded jewelry, while the smell of Ethiopian spices and Malaysian ramen from its food court waft through the room.
Across town on the East Side — notorious 30 years ago for its crime — a Bengali community helped turn apartments that had housed brothels into community-oriented spaces.
“There were shootings, there were prostitutes, we used to see maybe 200 cars coming by at night for people to buy drugs,” said Atiqur Rahman, 56, a refugee from Bangladesh who was one of the first in his community to move to the East Side of Buffalo in 2006. “But where most people saw abandoned houses and crime, I thought, ‘The houses are cheap, I can move in, put a light outside my front door, be nice to my neighbors and make a good future.’”
For the last five years, Rahman has run his own hardware business and accounting firm on the neighborhood’s main drag, Broadway Street, where other immigrants like him have also started their own businesses.
Some refugees have become new recruits for New York firms hungry for employees.
“We couldn’t grow as a business without them because we would be scrambling to find staff,” said Larry Christ, chief operating officer at Litelab Corp., a lighting manufacturer in Buffalo, where about a third of the workforce are immigrants, including recently arrived refugees.
The effort to draw more people to New York includes an advertising campaign targeted toward the Facebook groups, WhatsApp chats and newspapers that are run by refugees, whom officials hope will spread the word in their communities. One resettlement agency, the International Institute of Buffalo, created a recruitment video that features picturesque rows of houses dotted with fall foliage and residents boasting about the city.
In trying to draw upon the existing pool of refugees in the United States, New York is competing against places that have experienced similar declines as the country’s population growth has fallen to 80-year lows. Between 2007 and 2017, 80% of American counties, with a combined population of 149 million Americans, lost prime working-age adults, according to a recent report from the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank.
Even without a coordinated recruitment campaign, New York’s upstate cities have benefited from chatter among refugee communities. In Utica, about 80 to 100 refugees who had been living in other parts of the country have arrived annually in recent years, said Shelly Callahan, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica.
Abdiwahab Awayle, 36, first moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2017 from a refugee camp in Kenya. But after three months he stopped receiving government help to learn English and find a job.
Struggling to make ends meet while working at a plastic production company, he decided to move with his wife and five children to Utica, where he heard from Somali friends that rents were lower and better paying manufacturing jobs were available. The center for refugees, they said, offered free English classes.
“I make more money now. I can take better care of my family, and now I am telling my friends in Pennsylvania they need to come here,” said Awayle, who works in a retail store outside the city.
Only 229 refugees were resettled in Utica in 2017, about half the number of refugees resettled the previous year.
And that may not be enough.
Joe Carubba, the regional vice president of Gerber Collision & Glass, a body shop chain, said his company had not been able to fill 40 jobs for auto body technicians. He oversees 18 shops but plans to expand to 50 locations across the state.
“Now when we look at adding a new location, our biggest consideration is — can we find the people to fill the jobs?” Carubba said. “The answer is often no.”
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