Erie County lawmakers hosted a 90-minute meeting Thursday morning to gather information and address concerns about Syrian refugees that are expected to arrive in the near future.
Legislator Joseph Lorigo supervised the hearing. His public comments last month, criticizing County Executive Mark Poloncarz for preparing to welcome refugees into the county, touched off a controversy that he admitted "sort of spiraled out of control on both sides of the issue on social media." Those comments came shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks.
On Thursday in Erie County Legislature Chambers, Lorigo said he was hoping for more rational discussion on the matter. He again expressed his concerns for both security and for the use of taxpayer dollars to support refugees.
Regarding public assistance, officials advised Lorigo and other lawmakers in attendance that the federal government covers the first eight months of public support. When the point was raised that the money is still tax dollars, regardless of the level, representatives of agencies assisting local refugees responded by suggesting that federal support is also supporting the broader local community.
"If we didn't have a refugee resettlement program, if we didn't have a match-grant employment program ... that money would not be here and be spent on things that have economic impact in Erie County," said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. "Whether it comes out of our taxpayers' pockets or not, it would not be coming here. It would be going somewhere else."
Hassett told lawmakers that local refugee resettlement efforts brought $6.4 million into the county in fiscal year 2014-15.
A representative of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services testified that Syrian refugees are being vetted before they are allowed into the country. Janice Owen told those in attendance that the U.S. is not currently interviewing any of the refugees among the masses who have swarmed through Europe.
Hassett dismissed claims that most incoming refugees would be "military-age men." While she did not have specific numbers readily available, Hassett said that most refugees would actually be youths ages 14 and younger.
Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke thanked the guests who participated but expressed his disappointment that none of the speakers were representatives of the local Muslim community. He also reminded the room that the hearing was made necessary because of constant media talk which painted Syrian refugees as a potential terror threat. Burke said that this idea was passed along even after claims that the Paris attackers were Syrians were found to be inaccurate.
"We're here to educate the public so that they're no longer afraid of something that was falsely pushed around in the media and by elected officials," Burke said.