By Walter Ndjibu and Jake Steinmetz
Nov. 19, local residents, the Interfaith Peace Network, PUSH Buffalo, the Partnership for Public Good, 21st. Century Park, Westside International Soccer, WNY Muslims and WNY Peace Center and representatives of refugee resettlement agencies came together in front of the Old County Hall Buffalo building in protesting against the Erie County Legislature imminent vote on a resolution calling for a public hearing on accepting refugees to the city of Buffalo and the position of some local authorities who have expressed their opposition to further resettlement in Buffalo.
The intent to halt the arrival of Syrian refugees was initiated by Erie County Legislature Majority Leader, Joseph C. Lorigo of West Seneca, who called on Erie County Executive Mark C. Polancarz to stop the resettlement of refugees, posting on his twitter account that Polancarz should implore New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to end Syrian resettlement in the region.
On his side, Representative Chris Collins of Clarence released a statement, claiming: “At this point, we cannot guarantee with 100 percent certainty that the refugees we are accepting from Syria don’t pose a threat to our community. Until we have a process in place that achieves that goal, I am calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to stop plans to accept Syrian refugees.”
But in a press release obtained from the New York state of Opportunity, Gov. Cuomo already answered the question by alluding to its constitutional powerlessness to reverse the federal government decision. “How? Where does it say in the state constitution you can refuse a person placed by the federal government? Are you going to have your militia fight the federal government at the borders of your state? If the federal government accepts and places refugees in your state, as governor, you have no authority to turn them down,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, already said in his rally in New Hampshire that he was going to send Syrian refugees home because they could hide among them some members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). “I am putting the people on notice that are coming from Syria as part of this mass migration that if I win, if I win, they are going back, they are going back. I am telling you they are going back,” Trump said.
No matter how each leader approaches the issue and how each person looks at it, it is, in fact, this rhetoric heard at different levels of leadership that has triggered the people’s rally downtown Buffalo. From Julie Algubani, Director Executive of WNY Muslims, Anna Ireland, Director of Community Development at Jericho Road Community Health Center, to several other leaders present at the rally, the message was clear and uniform. They called for local authorities to allow the arrival of Syrian refugees in the city, they asked them to enable refugees in general to assimilate into the host community, to allow new comers to become contributing members of their society, and to understand that a violent act committed by a group of terrorists cannot make every Muslim a terrorist.
“I am sick and tired of hearing people speak negatively not just about the Muslim community but about refugees in general… A small group of terrorists cannot make every Muslim a terrorist,” Julie said. She also reminded local leaders the hard effort made by refugees and immigrants in opening business in the city for its development.
Representing the four major refugee resettlement agencies on Buffalo, Dr. Ireland from Jericho Road, stated “the immigrant and refugee population has been shown to be a critical part of the city’s resurgence fueling the first growth in population that the city has seen in many decades.”
Later in the day, the anti-resettlement resolution offered by Legislator Joseph Lorigo, which called for the public hearing on the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Buffalo, was blocked and amended by the Erie County Legislature Democratic Caucus. According to a press release obtained from the Caucus, Democrats struck the offensive language from the original resolution and changed reference to public hearing, and authorized an informational session where the focus shifts to experts’ testimony.
The spirit of the amended resolution joined that of the bill passed the same day in Washington D.C. by the House of Representatives, which would suspend the admission of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the U.S. until key national security agencies certify these refugees do not pose any security risk to the nation. With 47 Democrats joining the 242 Republicans, the vote, 289-137, represents a majority that can easily resist President Obama’s promised veto.
According to Pr. Obama, Syrian refugees are themselves victims of terrorism and that slamming the door in their face would be a betrayal.
Approaching the issue from a different perspective, Sarah Bertozzi, the Managing Attorney and Director of Legal Services Program at Journey’s End Refugee Services, indicated that all refugees could be affected by the situation. “The biggest risk is humanitarian,” she said. “Individuals overseas who should qualify as refugees who aren’t a security threat, who are eligible to be resettled in the United States, could experience significant delays or hardship in coming to the US. The biggest concern is that people, who are otherwise eligible, will be held up,” she said
When asked about plans to address this issue in the future, Bertozzi said, “Honestly, it’s business as usual.” “We will advocate for the individuals in the populations coming in. If Erie County or New York State makes it difficult we will rise up and defend the populations that we’re committed to serving.”