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How refugee resettlement became a revival strategy for this struggling town

April 7, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
In the midst of a campaign season filled with anti-migrant rhetoric, the once-downtrodden town of Utica in upstate New York has been more welcoming; one out of every four citizens there is a refugee. But Utica’s commitment to resettlement isn’t purely humanitarian -- its open door policy is also a pioneering economic tool for revitalizing the Rust Belt. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn to a different story at the intersection of jobs, business and politics, this on the question of settling and integrating refugees into American communities. Polls have shown concerns about doing so among a large percentage of voters.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story of one city in New York state that continues to offer a welcome mat, and sees it as good business.

It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense, which airs Thursdays.

READ MORE: How migrants and refugees are being welcomed in one tiny Italian village

PAUL SOLMAN: Post-industrial Utica, New York, Upstate, downtrodden, and, in the heart of downtown, where the United Methodist Church used to be, a thriving mosque.

In the world beyond Utica, the tide of refugees rises, the fear of foreigners swells. Muslim terrorists, real and imagined, haunt us. Ted Cruz calls for increased policing of Muslim neighborhoods.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Republican Presidential Candidate: Focus on communities where radicalization is a risk.

PAUL SOLMAN: Donald Trump’s first campaign ad went further.

NARRATOR: The politicians can pretend it’s something else, but Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism. That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on.

PAUL SOLMAN: But when we asked Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri if the city would be willing to resettle Syrian refugees?

MAYOR ROBERT PALMIERI, Utica, New York: I would say, absolutely, we would be, because Utica starts with you. It’s as simple as that.

PAUL SOLMAN: There’s the humanitarian aspect, of course, America’s historic promise to extend a hand to huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But Utica likes the economics.

MAYOR ROBERT PALMIERI: They’re willing to work and they work extremely hard. It’s the rebound for our great city.

PAUL SOLMAN: Refugee resettlement as an economic development tool, a Rust Belt revival strategy Utica has pioneered. After decades of decline — the city lost a third of its population when its factories closed — Utica is growing again, back up to 62,000 people, thanks in part to its reputation as — quote — “the town that loves refugees,” who now make up one out of every four residents.

Thousands are Muslims from Bosnia, refugees of the war there in the 1990s.

SAKIB DURACAK, Bosnian War Refugee: We left everything what we have at that time and start from zero again.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sakib Duracak, who trained in Bosnia as a construction engineer, started a small business in Utica rehabbing cheap, often crumbling, houses for refugees looking to build a new life.

SAKIB DURACAK: A huge opportunity, because, at the time when we came in Utica, it’s a relatively, very dead and poor city.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bosnians have visibly spruced up Utica’s East Side and beyond. But there’s an even more basic reason to welcome refugees to a town like Utica.

ELLEN KRALY, Colgate University: To have an economy, you have to have workers, and you have to have consumers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Ellen Kraly teaches demography at nearby Colgate University.

ELLEN KRALY: The influx of refugees to Utica allowed us to retain some smaller industries that were looking for highly motivated labor.

PAUL SOLMAN: And if past suffering helps fuel motivation, Tha Da Paw has plenty to spare.

THA DA PAW, Karen Refugee: I work very hard because I want to live American life.

PAUL SOLMAN: An ethnic Karen, a persecuted minority in Burma, she spent 23 years starting at age 4 in refugee camps in Thailand. When she was 14:

THA DA PAW: Burmese army, they just shoot our refugee camp and make it burn. My sister’s best friend, she burn alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: A week later, her 17-year-old sister committed suicide.

THA DA PAW: I think she tired of life. Whole, our life, we have to run, run, run, run for safety.

PAUL SOLMAN: Paw came to Utica eight years ago, worked as a nursing home aide and housekeeper while studying English, then as a medical interpreter. Three years ago, she joined the direct sales firm Mary Kay Cosmetics. Within months, she’d worked her way up to the coveted pink Cadillac.

THA DA PAW: I travel in Albany, Buffalo. It’s really hard, but now I love to live here.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, so we get why refugees for Utica, but why Utica for refugees?

IBRAHIM ROSIC, Bosnian War Refugee: Utica was close to Syracuse, and Tom Cruise is from Syracuse, so I thought I was going to see Tom Cruise.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sadly, for Bosnian refugee Ibrahim Rosic, no cruise, happily, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center.

SHELLY CALLAHAN, Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees: We receive $1,125 federal to be spent on behalf of each arriving refugee.

PAUL SOLMAN: With those dollars, says executive director Shelly Callahan, the refugee center rents an apartment, furnishes it, gets the utilities turned on, and starts teaching the basics.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: So, it’s how to lock your door, how to work the stove, the thermostat, the plumbing.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are also English lessons.

MAN: Is somebody sitting to the left of you?

WOMAN: Left?

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: Right?

MAN: Left, right.

WOMAN: You have got to shop around.

PAUL SOLMAN: Introductions to strange new foods.

WOMAN: Celery. We’re going to make celery and kale.

PAUL SOLMAN: And for those who can drive, the all-important class in parking tickets, a veritable auditorium of Babel. But within a few months, they’re on their own.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: They actually come here owing their airfare back to the federal government. So, they are expected to get a job as soon as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: Although there are no hard statistics on how many refugees do or don’t find jobs after their aid ends, some qualify for public assistance. Ibrahim Rosic was literally torn apart in the Bosnian conflict.

IBRAHIM ROSIC: In 1994 I stepped on a land mine. I lost my left leg, and my right leg was severely damaged. I have no knee. I can’t bend it.

PAUL SOLMAN: He is officially 100 percent disabled, but, says the former engineer:

IBRAHIM ROSIC: I work two jobs. I work full-time as a director at Mohawk Valley Community College, and I also work as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Poly. I am not a burden on the community. I am not a burden on social services. Yes, community helped me to get this, but now it’s my time to pay back. And I would say most refugees do the same.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, are refugees the economic boon that motivated immigrants famously have been?

Yes, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, but there are negatives.

JEFFREY SACHS, Columbia University: Some workers face increased job competition and their wages can be driven down. If lower-skilled immigrants come, then lower-skilled American workers may see a decline in their wages, whereas business owners may see more workers at lower cost for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what if, as many Americans fear, even just a few are terrorists?

Shelly Callahan’s response? This isn’t Europe.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: Refugees are the most intensively screened immigrants really to come to this country, about two years of intense scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, ICE, Department of State. There’s DNA testing involved.

YOUSIF AL SAAD, Iraq War Refugee: For those people who is proven as bad people, we don’t want them here.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Al Saad family, Palestinians who for decades lived in Baghdad, fled during the troop surge of 2007, the deadliest year of the Iraq War.

YOUSIF AL SAAD: I got kidnapped there by, I don’t know, some militia.

WOMAN: One of my other brothers, too.

YOUSIF AL SAAD: My other brother.

WOMAN: They beat him up.

YOUSIF AL SAAD: He got beat up. I lost many friends of mine.

PAUL SOLMAN: They spent three years in a camp on the Syrian border, before being cleared for transit to the United States.

Yousif Al Saad went to work at the Chobani yogurt plant outside Utica, whose CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, has championed the rights of refugees and hired hundreds of them. We were supposed to tape there, but at the last minute, Chobani pulled out, citing security concerns, fear for the safety of employees in the current political environment.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: Well, I think that is probably reflective of the very sad climate in this country with regard to politics at the moment and rhetoric.

MEN AND WOMEN: With liberty and justice for all.

MAN: Let’s have a round of applause for our new citizens.


PAUL SOLMAN: A few weeks ago in Utica, Yousif Al Saad joined 29 others, from 15 different countries in becoming a U.S. citizen.

WOMAN: Congratulations. Your new flag.

PAUL SOLMAN: Almost all were refugees.

We leave the last word to Judge David Peebles.

JUDGE DAVID PEEBLES, New York: America is now your country. I cannot overemphasize the need now, more than ever, for you and your fellow citizens to unite, answer the call and assist in bettering our society and our world. Congratulations on becoming a citizen of the greatest nation on earth. God bless all of you and God bless America.


PAUL SOLMAN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.