Throughout the country, refugees have rebuilt and revitalized many small cities and towns that are facing slowing economies and declining populations. Adam Bedient, whose film “Mahira Patkovich: A Refugee Rises” highlights the impact of Bosnian refugees in Utica, NY and Andrew Lim of New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization for immigration reform join Hari Sreenivasan for more.
Nearly 14 percent of the nation's population is made up of immigrants. A recent poll states that the majority of Americans believe that immigrants help strengthen the country and the communities they live in. That has been the case in places like the city of Utica in upstate New York. Adam Bedient It is a director and editor at Off Ramp films. His short movie, "Mahira Patkovich: A Refugee Rises" highlights the Bosnian refugee community in Utica and Andrew Lim is director of quantitative research at New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization for comprehensive immigration reform. Thanks both for being here now.
Adam, you grew up near Utica, not in Utica. For people who haven't watched your doc already, what was that town like? What did it go through? What's it like now?
Yeah, Utica is sort of a typical Rust Belt city in the middle of the last century. The population declined precipitously and there was just a lot of abandoned mill buildings and factories and dilapidated brick. And then in the early 90s, they started a refugee program to bring people in. There's a lot of very cheap housing and overdevelopment and they've really helped to revitalize the city.
So what immigrant communities are coming there?
In The 90s, the first wave was Bosnian and Cambodian and Vietnamese. Now there's a number of African countries, there's a lot from Burma, one of the biggest influx right now.
And if I was to drive down Main Street how do I see that difference?
I would say that the biggest example is that there was an old Methodist church right in the middle of the city and the city was prepared to tear it down. And the Bosnian community decided to that they would buy it and the city sold it to them for next to nothing. And the Bosnians turned it into this huge beautiful mosque. And it's part of the skyline now and it's right in the middle of the middle of a city.
Andrew, you've been looking at cities around the country and what he's describing is not an anomaly?
Definitely. And we started doing this research thinking that we would find some sorts of Utica, sort of cities in the Rust Belt or post-industrial cities that had struggled for decades with depopulation and things like that. But actually what is really surprising is that in other places, the Sunbelt or in California, for example, so Clarkston, Georgia is a great example but also places like El Cajon in California, places that people of all walks of life want to live in, it's sunny, it's bright, It's warm. Refugees were also going there and really actually contributing in meaningful ways to economic activity, to neighborhood revitalization and helping some of these communities you know keep from declining population to growing.
So these are places that people were leaving or the population was declining in that way. And these refugees are backfilling it, they're not coming in and just automatically moving to New York City, bright lights?
Well, refugees are sort of unique as immigrants because they don't really get to choose where they go. They're assigned a place based off of their characteristics. And so they kind of have to make the best of it. Right? And they're assigned a place to go. And they really you know, what we found is, adopt these places as their new hometowns and they're really invested in them and so the story that Adam's film shows is completely sort of characteristic of that idea to create a new life for yourself in America.
What does the current administration or the position that the administration has taken toward refugees do to both of these.. I am going to ask you both this. I mean you know there's a famous quote Steven Miller hed, I'd be happy if not a single refugee foot ever touched American soil again, right? Knowing that, how do the people in your documentary feel about what's happening in this country?
Not good. I mean, it's hard emotionally for everyone. You see it at the refugee center who is having to lay off a lot of their resettlement workers because the resettlement program is ostensibly being broken. A lot of the refugees coming into Utica are family reconnection and we've seen a number of instances where someone has started that process, they have their parents are expected to be coming from Thailand, the case was opened and now they're sort of it looks as though the case has been dropped and they can't find any information and may not be able to reconnect with their family.
Andrew, what about this notion of the replacement rate right? That there is essentially a level that we need to be having children at, whatever. When you think of the long term arc of the United States and how our demographics are shifting, are refugees, where is immigration and the refugee influx as part of that mix?
Well for refugees and some immigrants as well, you're already seeing that story played out especially in smaller cities or in rural areas where you have a serious decline in the number of people of working age who are able to work. And younger people, as soon as they finish high school or even college start to leave these places and these are still places that are you know, the vast majority of places in the United States are still these places. So, without an influx of people of working age to come and take jobs, you know, that there aren't people to help fill them, serious economic risk and a cost to these two local communities.
Adam Bedient, Andrew Lim, thank you both.
The name of the short film has been updated.
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