Buffalo, frigid northern city of—refugees? Yes, refugees. I spent a week in Buffalo last June helping out in a small Jesuit parish, St. Ann’s, located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Among the first issues the pastor told me about was the struggle of refugees and asylum seekers to find safety and a new life in that most unlikely of cities. The very night of my arrival, he took me to visit a Sudanese family living on the first floor of a two-story house in a nearby neighborhood. It was hard to imagine how a group of Sudanese could cope with Buffalo’s freezing winters, coming as they had from an African nation where tropical heat is a constant. But they do cope, even if they pad around their apartment in bare feet wearing parkas almost year round. The mother spoke only halting English, but her children—already enrolled in a local public school—are learning rapidly and serve as their mother’s translators when needed.
The Sudanese family’s apartment was large, the whole first floor of a two-story house. One of the compensations amid Buffalo’s hard economic times is the low cost of housing. A five-room apartment like this family’s can be rented for as little as $350 a month—a sum that would hardly pay for a closet in Manhattan. The apartment was decently if simply furnished. The furniture, I learned the next day after Mass, came from a nonprofit organization that seeks out discarded furniture for donation to new arrivals from other parts of the world.
During my stay I also visited Catholic Charities’ immigration and refugee resettlement program. A staff member noted that those they assist come not just from Africa, but also from countries as diverse as Uzbekistan. “After 9/11 our numbers dropped,” she said, “but by last March we had the largest number of refugees ever, and by the end of 2004 we had resettled over 400 of them.” When refugees reach Buffalo, Catholic Charities quickly arranges for housing, financial assistance, Medicaid (“on the day they arrive”), rent coverage and food vouchers. Then come classes in English and, eventually, entry-level jobs at places like McDonald’s. Just as difficult as such major challenges as learning a new language are the cultural barriers. Somali Bantus, for example, have very different concepts of time when it comes to 8-to-4 jobs, and they may not realize the need to lock their doors. Although some remain in the Buffalo area, others often choose to move to other parts of the country, where they may have already-established relatives.
Those sponsored by Catholic Charities have little to fear in terms of deportation. Even before leaving the refugee camps where most were living, their status as refugees had already been approved overseas by representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And on receiving their green cards, they can hope for citizenship in five years. One of the most fortunate refugees I met was a woman named Jesca. Originally from Uganda, she had fled to Sudan because of the depredations of the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was raiding refugee camps and abducting children for recruitment into the rebel forces. She remained in Sudan from 1979 to 1991. Then, when conditions in Sudan became dangerous because of the war there, she fled back to Uganda, where she worked with Jesuit Refugee Service as a volunteer teacher. In the process she learned English, an enormous advantage for her when she arrived here in 2000 with her children. She was soon able to study for certification as a licensed practical nurse and now has a full-time job in an Episcopalian nursing home. Through a government housing subsidy program, moreover, she was able to purchase the comfortable house where she received us.
Much more precarious, however, is the position of asylum seekers who arrive in the United States on their own, in hope of being approved by Buffalo’s immigration court judges on the grounds that they have fled persecution because of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social group. I met a number of people in this situation during a visit to Vive, an interfaith organization that assists asylum seekers. Since its founding two decades ago, Vive has sheltered people from 90 countries in a former Catholic elementary school. The day I went to Vive with the pastor of St. Ann’s, we were treated to a simple lunch prepared by the residents for themselves, many of them women and children.
Unfortunately, the prospects for the group at Vive were greatly lessened by a dramatic change in immigration law. Called the Safe Third Country Agreement, it was originally signed into law both in Ottawa and Washington in 2002. Until the agreement went into effect, Canada had been considered more liberal than the United States in accepting asylum seekers. Not surprisingly, many of them rushed to Vive during the last weeks of December 2004. Since the law went into effect that month, most have had little success. Fewer than 10 percent of asylum requests heard by Buffalo immigration court judges were approved in 2004.
A year after its implementation, the Canadian Council for Refugees issued a report on the negative effects of the Safe Third Country Agreement. One result has been an increase in smuggling and unauthorized border crossings. The group’s 2005 report cites Colombian refugee claims as an example of the agreement’s damaging impact on human rights. In 2004, the report notes, “Colombia was the top country of origin of claimants in Canada.” But the following year, Colombian claimants dropped to less than a third of their 2004 numbers. “It is clear that the door has been closed on a group of claimants who need Canada’s protection.” To make matters worse, the report continues, since the agreement was implemented, U.S. law has been changed in a manner that is likely to reduce the U.S. acceptance rate still further.”
No wonder the United States has been called Fortress North America. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, more and more barriers have been raised against asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds, whether in Buffalo or in other parts of the country. New arrivals like Jesca and those sponsored by Catholic Charities are among the lucky ones. A recent World Refugee Survey, released by the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, estimates that over 11 million refugees and asylum seekers are trapped in some of the poorest and most violence-stricken parts of the globe. Refugee and asylum advocates argue that more of both groups should be welcomed here, in the richest of all countries. As matters stand now, asylum seekers are often held in detention in county jails with little access to legal counsel and among prisoners with serious criminal charges. Many are eventually deported back to the very regions from which they had fled. After my visit to Buffalo, I have come to share the advocates’ view more than ever.