Immigrant-destination cities in the US brace for uncertainty

Donald Trump’s plan to significantly cut refugee numbers in 2018 has many US communities looking at what they will lose should immigration drop. 

By: /
24 November, 2017
Recently naturalized US citizens leave a swearing in ceremony in Los Angeles, U.S., July 18, 2017. Picture taken July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Assad al-Majid grew up helping his father prepare sweets and ice cream at his family’s shop in Damascus, Syria. Later in life, he opened up his own chocolate factory there. When the war broke out in 2011, he and his family escaped to Jordan. Last year, the father of four resettled to Syracuse, New York, with his wife and children — a long way from his former home, but a place where he is determined to stay and open his own sweets shop.

“God brought me here,” he says, “so I have to continue here.”

Syracuse, like other cities in upstate New York and elsewhere in the United States that struggle economically, has begun to reverse decades of population decline by attracting immigrant workers and entrepreneurs, and refugees like al-Majid.

While Donald Trump’s plan to reduce overall immigration and cap the refugee resettlement program at 45,000 — a dramatic drop from the Obama-era cap of 110,000 —  starting in 2018 has kept Canadian immigration officials on alert, the policy change is also bad news for the many small and medium-sized cities around the United States, often in very conservative regions, which have courted migrant resettlement as a means of survival.

Measuring economic impact

While some Republicans, including Trump, claim that immigrants come to the United States to steal US jobs, the reality is that even in some of the most conservative parts of the country, immigrants and refugees are recruited by business owners and politicians alike to supplement the local labour force or to bring new businesses to shuttered main streets.  

Anthony Messina, a political science professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who studies migration in the US and Europe, says that what is happening now is “basically the historical re-write of what happened in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” when immigrants came from Europe to settle in large US cities. Now, he says, “new immigrants are coming to towns and small cities that had not previously been sites for immigration,” like the Rust Belt and the South.   

In New York state, 90 percent of refugees are resettled outside of New York City. Syracuse has seen a 40 percent increase in its foreign-born population over the past 15 years, and more than a quarter have been resettled refugees, effectively reversing population decline. Dominic Robinson of Centerstate CEO, an economic development organization based in the city, says that the positive results of immigration to the area are “irrefutable – both from the data, but also just when you walk the streets and see the storefronts that are activated and the houses that are being lived in.”  

For 50 years many people left these cities to pursue education or work elsewhere. “It’s not like there are folks waiting in line to get into upstate cities,” says Robinson, “so we really have to embrace people who want to be here and think that’s an overall strategy that everybody benefits from.”

Immigrants contributed US$1.7 billion to the GDP of the Syracuse metro area alone in 2014, according to a report produced by the New American Economy, a national bipartisan coalition of politicians and business leaders.

Creating welcoming communities

While the data tells one story, Messina says the response to immigration in “new” destinations has been mixed, “with the economic contribution often welcome, while the cultural changes have been seen as threatening.”

This is where the work of Welcoming America comes in. Emerging in 2009 from an economically depressed town in Tennessee that was grappling with the different beliefs, histories and cultures amongst Latinos, blacks, whites and Somalis, the network now counts about 400 community partners across the United States dedicated to “building a nation of neighbours.”

“We really have to embrace people who want to be here. That’s an overall strategy that everybody benefits from.”

Rachel Peric, Welcoming America’s director, is familiar with the tensions that can arise when a community goes through rapid change. “If there’s not a proactive effort on the part of the community to set the tone and make sure that not only refugees feel welcome, but people who have lived there their whole lives feel welcome. If that doesn’t happen, it can be a ripe environment for some pushback.” This can be done through educational efforts so that the long-time community members understand why resettlement is happening, she says, as well as integration initiatives that help residents meet and get to know each other.

Messina cites the importance of local leadership in setting that tone: “In localities where the major political institutions – political parties, law enforcement – are broadly supportive of these new immigrant communities and defend them, in terms of both their physical safety and also rhetorically, there has been greater success in terms of incorporation.”

Support for new arrivals starting their own businesses is pivotal to both economic revitalization and community integration. With Love, a restaurant incubator in Syracuse, hopes to do just that. Sarah, a 32-year-old Pakistani woman who prefers to use only her first name, got her start there as the first resident entrepreneur in the restaurant, which changes cuisine and “owner” every six months. She says that the first two weeks of running the restaurant completely changed her: “Before, I was really shy, I didn’t want to face the people, I just wanted to be in the back of the house.” But during those two weeks, “people started encouraging me. They ate my food and said it was the best food of their life. So I had to speak with them and explain my spices and my culture. In two weeks I became a different person with the help and encouragement of the community.”

An uncertain future

Welcoming America says that one in eight Americans currently lives in what they call a “welcoming community” — cities or counties that commit to long-term integration and inclusion initiatives.

Peric says that these cities are “making it really evident that the values and economics of many communities around the country are strongly on the side of being welcoming, of being places where anyone, regardless of where you are born or what religion you practice, can come and feel like they’re part of the community. They’re really staking their economic future on that idea, which is smart.”  

She says the current national rhetoric on immigration is “challenging for communities like those in upstate [New York] because not only do those policies mean fewer people for them, but it also sends a message to the people there who are valued contributors that they don’t belong.”  

The September announcement that Trump will reduce refugee resettlement next year to the historic low of 45,000 people is “detrimental to our work,” says Robinson. It threatens the resettlement organizations that rely on federal funds — which are also expected to be cut significantly — but also dismantles an infrastructure that will not be easily reassembled should the policy change.

“We have people who really have the experience and understanding for what it takes to try to transition someone from being a new arrival to getting them set up with housing and a job and education,” says Robinson. “A significant set of networks are required to be built and maintained to do that. Without those networks it’s really difficult to do that work effectively.”

Al-Majid and Sarah are both hoping to open their own restaurants, but finding the capital and navigating the bureaucracy is a challenge. The market demand from the community exists, however, and they persist.

Sarah recently started operating a once-a-week take-out restaurant at a local community centre and said she served 250 people in her first week, completely running out of food. Al-Majid, after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response to his sweets at a restaurant pop-up event, signed a lease for a shop in August and awaits the permits to open. 

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