WNY immigrant, refugee community watching Washington closely

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Immigrants and refugees have been a part of Buffalo since the beginning, playing a key role in the community’s cultural and economic heritage.

Local leaders say the area’s immigrant and refugee population will also play an important role in the continued growth of greater Buffalo into the future.

The executive orders signed by President Donald Trump Wednesday suggest suspending immigration and refugee programs for six countries, including war-torn Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Although Trump considers the matter a national security issue, the impact locally could be both cultural and economic, says Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.

“This is really not about refugees. This is about American values,” Hassett said. “America has long sought to be a place that people can come to have liberty and freedom and justice and equality. It’s what we talk about as Americans.”

Buffalo is not a so-called sanctuary city, known for directives that prevent local funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Rather, it’s considered a preferred refugee resettlement site. And the nation’s Refugee Resettlement Program — in which Buffalo benefits — could be in jeopardy, at least temporarily.

“It (the Refugee Resettlement Program) allows us as a country to further our humanitarian goals, to further our economic goals and to further our national security goals,” Hassett said.

The federal government pumps in nearly $6.4 million a year for resettlement programs in Buffalo alone — money used for housing and job programs — Hassett said.

Some of those programs helped refugees like Rubens Mukunzi, who came to Buffalo from Rwanda in 2013.

He now has two jobs, one of which is the founder and publisher of the Karibu News.

“I think the government should be doing the best they can to help coming into this country to be safe and more protected (for refugees),” Mukunzi said.

“We work hard for the better of this country,” he added. “We come here, we invest our energy, we pay taxes, we do a lot of positive things. So I think people should think about the positives that the refugees and immigrants do in this country.”

Hassett said the preference for many organizations that help local immigrants and refugees is to maintain the status quo.

“I’m as committed to having a secure country and secure Buffalo and anyone else,” she said. “But we believe the screenings that are in place are safe.”

She also said perceived fear of immigration is harmful, especially to communities like western New York.

“They are just like us. They want what we want,” said said of refugees. “They want to be free to be who they are and they want to have a successful life in this country. And that’s why they had to come here to flee countries that didn’t give them the right to do that.”

It’s also not known whether Trump’s orders would have an impact financially on local universities, or their ability to attract top international talent.

“The University at Buffalo is an international community,” according to a statement issued by the university Wednesday. “And since our university’s founding, UB has been enriched by students, faculty and staff from around the world.

“In fact, this week the university welcomes a new group of incoming international students. Despite pending executive actions affecting access to the United States by persons from designated countries, UB is a welcoming campus for students, faculty and visitors from across the globe.”

Mukunzi he witnesses fear about the future in the refugee community.

“People are afraid of this situation, of course. And even myself, I have friends living in Buffalo that are afraid of this situation. They’re afraid of what can happen,” he said. “If this continues, I think it will have a bad impact, not only for refugees but for the whole country.

“This is a great country,” he added, opening his arms to the Karibu News office. “Do we really need to go back to the 20s, 30s, 50s? Or should we be going forward?”

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