This Town’s Comeback May Be Squelched by Anti-Immigrant Policies


(Photo by Andy V under a Creative Commons license)

A lot of Donald Trump’s lingering support  is presumed to be in economically struggling communities across, where some people believe harsh policies toward immigrants will create new job opportunities. Utica, New York—an industrial city of 62,000 between Albany and Syracuse—is the kind of place we think of as Trump country.  And, in fact, Trump beat Clinton by nearly 20 points in Oneida County, where Utica is located.

But Trump’s immigration policies might actually squelch Utica’s economic comeback.  Here’s why.  Between 1960 and 2000, the city’s population nosedived from 100,000 to 60,000—but in recent years that decline has dramatically slowed, and even reversed a bit.

A big reason for Utica’s stability is that the city opened its doors to 16,000 refugees along with other immigrants over the past three decades. These are people grateful to be away from turmoil in their homelands. They don’t care that many Americans dismiss this region as the failing “rust belt”, or that some local residents believe the city’s best days are behind it.

Immigrants boost Utica by entering the workforce, launching businesses, paying taxes, renting or buying homes, sending their kids to local schools, coaching soccer teams, joining religious congregations, fixing up neighborhoods—all the simple everyday actions that keep a community going.

Touring Utica, you don’t see the blocks of abandoned properties that characterize many  factory towns.  Tricycles and kiddie pools dot the yards. Sidewalks are frequented with youngsters at play. Storefronts downtown and most neighborhood corners are open for business.

“Anyone who does the math can see that immigrants are economic assets to Utica,” says Shelly Callahan, Executive Director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR).


This Town's Comeback May Be Squelched by Anti-Immigrant PoliciesA World Refugee Day citizenship ceremony in Utica, 2017

Since 1981, MVRCR has welcomed about 400 refugees a year from places like Iraq, China, Sudan, Myanmar, Bosnia, Vietnam, Nepal, Somalia, Russia and other countries.The organization also provides help to other newcomers to the area, notably a growing Dominican population. But in 2017, the number of refugees dropped to 250.

With the number of refugees admitted to the US slashed by over 50 percent during 2017, and more immigration cuts and deportations in the offing for 2018, Utica might once again see a decline in population and its future prospects.

“Across the Rust Belt you see that immigrants are the one population that’s growing—which revitalizes downtown areas, keeps the schools open, and increases the tax base,” explains David Kallick, Director of the Immigration Research Initiative of the Fiscal Policy Institute, which focuses on the economic future of New York state.

“Immigration is too often a fact-free debate,” he adds. “When we look at the economic role of immigrants we find they play a positive role.”

Shelly Callahan (2nd from left) at Blue Mountain Center last year discussing immigration policy at a meeting sponsored the Fiscal Policy Institute with (left to right) Olive Sephuma of the Center for Americans at Interfaith Works, Khin Mai Aung of the New York State Department of Education and Steve Tobocman of Global Detroit. 

The mission of MVRCR is to maximize the positive benefits of immigration by helping New Americans get a smooth start on life in the US.  Callahan describes their work as a “one-stop shop” for help with job placement, citizenship, English fluency, housing, health care, transportation, translation, computer literacy, social service agencies, professional certification, schools and other lifeskills.

MVRCR offers a 3-month intensive immersion into the practical points of American culture, which has been lauded by Reader’s Digest and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as well as Hilary Clinton and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The process averages about $1175 per person, which is funded by private donations, foundation grants and modest federal funding.

Some users of the program now work at MVRCR, including manager of the Immigration & Citizenship program Azira Tabucic, who came here from Bosnia.  “Nobody’s more pro-American than she is,” Callahan declares.

Refuting the frequent claim that immigrants “steal” jobs from native-born Americans,” Callahan  points to labor shortages in the Mohawk Valley. “We can’t keep up with the demand for workers.”

“Utica offers a sense of tolerance and welcome for immigrants,” she says. “Most people realize what they bring to the economic development of the city.”

Immigrants are nothing new in Utica.  Today 27 percent of the city’s population speaks a language other than English at home. That’s about the same as in 1900, Callahan points out, which accounts for the banner across downtown’s major street trumpeting “Polish Days,” and the sign outside St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Catholic church announcing pierogis for sale every Friday.

Callahan took part in a meeting last year at Blue Mountain Center, one of three since 2013 where the Fiscal Policy Institute brought together organizations from around New York state to discuss state policies that affect immigrants.  “We wanted to have a conversation about how to take advantage of the good things about immigration, and how immigrants can contribute even more,” Kallick says.

“I had no idea there was a place like BMC,” Callahan recalls.  “They really took care of us.  The food is amazing! It gave us the time and space to get away from everything and really think about what’s next.”