Photo by Ali Hibbs/Spotlight News
ALBANY — On Sunday, Feb. 26, the League of Women Voters of Albany County (LWVAC) held a public panel discussion about immigration and refugee communities in the Capital District. The discussion focused largely on the region’s refugee population.
“We want you to know the facts,” said LWVAC President Margaret Danes, who noted during her welcome that, although the national League of Women Voters (which also includes a fair amount of men) is generally nonpartisan, it does sometimes arrive at consensus on certain issues and advocate for certain legislative policies.
Moderated by Dahlia Herring of the Capital Region Refugee Roundtable, five individuals who work with immigrants and refugees in the Capital District spoke about the work their organizations do and about their own personal experiences helping newly arrived families to navigate their new environments.
“There are a lot of foreign-born in the Capital Region,” said panelist Dina Refki, director of University at Albany’s Center for Women in Government and Civil Society (CWCGS). “We have over 70,000. That’s about six percent of the population.” The growth rate, she said, was 33 percent from 2005 to 2014, among the highest in the state.
According to Refki, CWCGS has been working on immigrant integration issues since 2001. Describing integration as a “two-way street,” she said that both immigrants and the society into which they’re introduced have rights as well as responsibilities. “It’s very complex and multi-dimensional.”
“It’s like landing on the moon,” said Brenden Mooney, a Bethlehem resident who volunteers his time helping to assimilate immigrant families when they first arrive. Mooney works with one family at a time, helping them to navigate things like opening bank accounts, accessing health care and finding employment. During a phone interview with SpotlightNews, Mooney described his most recent work with an Afghani family — a grandmother, a mother and four children. Many of the families that Mooney works with have come to the U.S. as the result of personal tragedy, often from war-torn countries. It’s not uncommon, he said, for the family to be without a father.
“It just complicates things a lot more,” he said. “You know?”
“Language is the biggest barrier,” said Rifat Filkins, executive director for Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE). “And it takes a very long time for adults to overcome that barrier.” Filkins noted that RISSE, which provides English as a Second Language classes, serves immigrants from 26 different countries, with different languages, backgrounds, cultures and circumstances.
“Language barriers are critical,” said Rekfi. “It’s important to provide those language learning opportunities.” Not only does language proficiency produce better economic outcomes, she said, it also leads to improved health outcomes.
While the experiences of both immigrants and refugees (also, technically, immigrants) bear strong similarities in terms of assimilating to a new culture and learning a new language, there are some notable differences panelists attempted to clarify:
Immigrant – someone who voluntarily chooses to leave their country for improved opportunities.
A foreign citizen seeking to immigrate generally must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident — an immediate relative, prospective employer — and have an approved petition before applying for an immigrant visa. (There are a variety of visas for which one might apply, each with its own requirements.)
According to LWVAC, a notable number of Capital District immigrants are here on an exclusive Special Immigrant Visa — given to those who have worked with the U.S. armed forces. Only 50 are approved each year.
Refugee – someone who is forced to leave their home country due to political, social, or economic strife.
The legal definition of a refugee is a person ‘who has been persecuted or is afraid of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.’ The U.S. resettles refugees who have fled their countries and have applied for refugee status — current law, under the Refugee Act of 1980, allows 50,000 refugees to be admitted to the country each year, requiring presidential approval to exceed that number. Each refugee is investigated, a process that typically takes 18 months to two years, before approval can be granted.
Unlike traditional immigrants, refugees have little say in where they end up being resettled and, often, no prior knowledge or information about their destination, or any established family.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has settled approximately 4,000 refugees here in the Capital District since 2005; in 2016, 500 new refugees made the region their home. While they come from all over the world, Mooney said the Capital District tends to see larger influxes of Burmese, Iraqi, Afghani and Syrian refugees.
“You don’t see many in Bethlehem,” he said. “Because they can’t afford to live here yet.” But, he said that he expects to see that change within a generation or two. “They’re working hard and they’re all required to take English as a Second Language.”
According to panelist Isabelle Thacker, staff attorney for USCRI, Albany County can expect to see a decrease in incoming refugees as a result of recent actions announced by the new federal administration.
“For fiscal year 2017, President Obama’s intent was to resettle 110,000 refugees in the United States and Albany was going to resettle about 565,” she said, explaining that the Trump administration has cut that number to 50,000, about 28,000 of which have already been resettled. Albany has already resettled about 350 refugees during the first four months of the federal fiscal year, she said, and can expect only about 100 more.
In response to a question about what it costs to take in refugees, Thacker responded that they pay for their own flights, often taking a loan repayable six months after their arrival. “The default rate is extremely low,” she noted. “They’re entitled services for the first 90 days that they’re here and then the expectation is that they get a job and start paying for their own housing.” Refugees do retain access to food stamps and, in some cases, are eligible for housing benefits beyond the first three weeks, she said, “But they pay taxes. They become members of the community.”
While refugee families may initially receive more financial support and social services than traditional immigrants, Mooney and LWVAC panelists pointed out that they are also more likely to be dealing with recent tragedy and have mental or emotional health issues that can interfere with successful integration.
“Nobody chooses to be a refugee,” said Thacker. “It’s a hard thing to go through and it takes such a huge amount of courage.”
Responding to a community member concerned about the potential for terrorism in immigrant communities, panelist Steve Downs of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamaphobia (CDCAI) said, “I would just say that the statistics show that the terrorist events caused by people in the country are amazingly small. You have more chance of being killed by your furniture falling on you than you do by a terrorist attack. You have a much bigger chance of being shot by a policeman than you do by terrorist attack. This is a fear that is completely unjustified. It is not based on the facts at all and we should reject it every time the argument is made that somehow we are in danger because people are coming into the country as immigrants or as refugees. This is one of the most peaceful, law-abiding groups you will find anywhere.”
The anti-immigration stance taken by the new federal administration, including the ban on immigrants from a select list of Middle Eastern countries — including Syria and Iraq — has caused confusion and concern among local immigrant communities. Some are afraid to travel, for fear they might not be allowed to return home. Thacker told the story of a woman who spent three weeks in Albany County Jail before documentation was found proving that her dead parents had, indeed, been legal residents. Characterizing the experience as traumatizing, she pointed out that not everyone has access to documents produced prior to the mass digitalization of information.
According to Mooney, even among immigrants who do not entirely understand the implications of Trump’s actions, there is a sense in the community that he is not friendly or receptive to their arrival. “And there’s a little bit of fear,” he said. “I’m supposed to take my family tomorrow to move ahead on the green card process, but I’ve been told that, because of the new administration, the process is now more uncertain. So it’s a little bit like legal limbo.”
Volunteers like Mooney and organizations such as those represented on the LWVAC panel are working to help immigrant families overcome the many challenges of adjusting to life in the U.S. and navigate the myriad challenges of naturalization. Utilizing academic and field research, outreach tools and lobbying skills, they endeavor to help the newcomers to access all the services and educational opportunities available to them so that they can become contributing members of society in the shortest possible time.
“It isn’t easy,” said Filkins, who still concluded, “We all can make this world a better place by helping each other.”
“A lot of research has told us that when foreign-born residents are given educational, economical and political opportunities, the social distance between the immigrant and the mainstream society will shrink and that’s really what we want to do,” said Refki.
According to Mooney, local community members have been doing what they can to help. He knows of two women who have “adopted” families that they assist with shopping and food preparation, and another who is offering assistance to first-time tax preparers.
Currently, he is working on setting up a cooperative venture for refugee women to help them learn skills to become more financially independent. A number of sewing machines have been donated, but Mooney is still looking for volunteers to help teach sewing. “We’re going to explore how we might best make use of these women’s natural skills and help them make some money and become less dependent,” he said.
Mooney can be contacted through his gofundme website at https://www.gofundme.com/afghanrefugeesalb, where he is raising money to help his Afghan family cover the $5,000 it costs to fly to this country and pay for two months rent. The grandmother, he said, is ill and unable to work or care for the children, which has placed a considerable amount of fiscal stress on the single, working mother. Benefits have become less available, he added, and are likely to continue to dwindle.
“They’re doing the best they can,” he said. While volunteers help to ease the burden, Mooney said that he feels more help should be coming from government. “We accepted them as refugees and now they’re our responsibility.”