Advocates call on New York to admit Syrian refugees

Advocates call on New York to admit Syrian refugees

October 12, 2015

As world leaders seek solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis, nonprofit leaders and local politicians in New York are calling for the Empire State to accept thousands of refugees. The United States – and this state in particular, they argue – is uniquely suited to take in many of those uprooted by a tumultuous civil war that has killed over 250,000 Syrians, and forced 4 million out of the country.

In September, the Obama administration announced it would admit more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. – a tenfold increase. Since the war began nearly five years ago, only 1,243 Syrians have been admitted to this country, according to government statistics between October 2011 and July.

Advocates contend that the increase is merely a token gesture. As millions of displaced Syrians cascade across borders from the Levant to central Europe, refugee resettlement agencies have called on the U.S. to expand the quota to 100,000.

David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, is among those calling for an increase and rebuked the administration’s new numbers. “With 4 million living in limbo and tens of thousands making desperate choices to reach safety, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to lead and is fully equipped to respond in a far more robust way,” Miliband said in a statement.

Sarab Al-Jijakli, the New York-based president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals, agrees that Obama’s increase is not enough.

“It’s a minuscule number,” Al-Jijakli said. “Ten thousand is significantly below what experts in the field are saying should be allowed ASAP. Even 100,000 is a tiny percentage of the overall numbers of refugees – which, by the end of this year, will be up to 5 million potentially.”

Resettlement experts say the largest obstacle to accepting more refugees is not political, it’s systemic – the U.S. refugee admission program is outdated and overly complex.

“They just keep adding layer upon layer upon layer of bureaucracy into this process,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a resettlement agency. “It’s to the point where it is no longer a rescue program – it’s an incredible Rube Goldberg device.”

“It takes a long time for refugees to get through,” Hetfield said, stressing that security measures can be maintained while cutting out burdensome red tape. “This is an opportunity to make this thing work faster and work better.”

Still, critics fear that terrorists could sneak into the country posing as refugees, leading some to oppose sheltering any Syrians at all. “If I win,” presidential candidate Donald Trump told Fox News, “they’re going back.” 

Two New York mayors, however, came out strongly in favor of accepting more refugees. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner co-signed a letter to Obama, along with 16 other U.S. mayors, asking the federal government to allow them to “help make room for thousands more.”

“New York has always been a place where the American dream has come to life for generations of immigrants from around the globe,” de Blasio said. “For the thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the nightmare of oppression in search of safety, stability and salvation, we say welcome.”

Feeling political tides turning in their favor, refugee advocates in New York are launching efforts to host needy Syrians in the state.

“It’s an obvious place for immigrants to come,” said Eric Greenberg with the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. “New York does play a part here. From a moral point of view, from a historical point of view, our tradition is to welcome in new immigrants and refugees. We’re not the only place, but there’s an infrastructure here.”

NAAP has already hosted a meeting with community organizers in Brooklyn to help lay the groundwork for refugees that settle in the area. The borough is one likely place that Syrians may want to put down roots, Al-Jijakli said. Refugees seek “like-minded or friendly communities, such as in Bay Ridge, where you have a huge Arab-American population,” he said. It is not an exclusively Syrian area, Al-Jijakli acknowledged, but the area lends a cultural familiarity, which helps with assimilation.

Nevertheless, where newly admitted refugees want to settle and where resettlement agencies place them will not necessarily be the same. The nine major resettlement agencies tasked with planting refugees in American communities often face logistical obstacles that limit where they can provide services to refugees. Agencies are given a set amount of money to settle each refugee, so resettlement along the costlier U.S. coasts is less likely, agencies say, and many resettlement offices have moved to more affordable areas.

Nevertheless, local advocates say, New York is bound to receive its share of Syrians.

“One would assume, given that there are a lot of Syrians here, that it would be a significant resettlement site,” Hetfield said. “But let’s put it this way – it’s not going to be like the Russians in Brighton Beach.”

Organizations like HIAS argue that there is precedent to admit large numbers in response to an emergency, in the way Vietnamese refugees flowed in after the Vietnam War.

“It’s not rocket science,” Hetfield said. “It’s been done quickly before and we can do it quickly again.”

Despite security concerns, advocates say, it makes more sense for the U.S. to host large numbers of Syrians than European countries. The U.S. has no foundational ethnic identity the way nations like Hungary, France or Germany do – it has a uniquely diverse immigrant identity.

“And so if we don’t take them,” Hetfield asked. “Who will?”

Greenberg compared the current efforts to aid Syrian refugees to those of European officials who defied bureaucratic hurdles during the Holocaust in order to save children’s lives with the “Kindertransport” rescue operations.

“This is human beings trying to help human beings in dire need,” Greenberg said. “Listen, they pulled up the red tape. They ignored it, or went behind it, or under it, or around it in order to save children. … Multifaith Alliance is working right now behind the scenes trying to do just that, to bring some of the most needy refugees, Syrian children, to New York.” 

While the program is only in its earliest stages, Greenberg is hopeful. “It’s our obligation to do the same,” he said.

Hetfield, meanwhile, pointed out that it’s only a matter of time before Syrians reach American shores one way or another. “We know that smugglers can start bringing them here,” he said. “That will happen eventually. Once Europe is saturated, they will start offering that alternative. There’s no question about that.

“If we don’t start taking significant amounts of people through an orderly process,” he added, “they’re going to come here anyway.”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.