How do refugees lift Buffalo? Let me count the ways

Mar 31, 2017

A local economic development strategy has to include the area's growing immigrant and refugee population. That is according to the International Institute of Buffalo's Eva Hassett, speaking Thursday night at Medaille.

The Institute's Executive Director spoke as part of the college's "Buffalo's Future" series. Her agency runs a wide array of programs for immigrants and refugee and has for nearly a century, although the immigrants have changed over the decades.

Credit Katie Park/NPR

In recent decades, she said, the newcomers have changed the face of Buffalo and the city's neighborhoods, citing improvements and development along Grant Street. They have also somewhat stabilized the city's population decline.

"They're also driving growth in the labor force, as a result of that. Without a labor force, we don't have employees for companies in Buffalo," Hassett said. "Immigrants are entrepreneurial. Immigrants are starting businesses at the large scale, at the small scale. I talked tonight about many, many, many brands you know that were started by immigrants, like Google and Intel."

Hassett told the audience immigrants often had good jobs back home, but often cannot use their training and licenses here. Consequently, they are underutilized in the labor force.

She said local industries who consider leaving because they cannot find workers can look closer at recent immigrants. Hassett said the average immigrant in this area is better educated than the average local resident, but many have skills they cannot use here because they were trained or licensed in their home country and New York State does not always get them the help they need to use their skills here.

Credit WBFO's Mike Desmond

She also encouraged the current state economic development strategy to be amended.

"With the REDCs and the Buffalo Billion and I think that's tremendous. What I'm suggesting is that we need to develop an additional strategy, especially in Upstate, around immigrants and refugees because that's how we reverse population decline in Upstate," she said. "That's how we grow businesses and homeowners and neighborhoods and employees in Upstate."

Across Upstate New York, she said any economic development strategy needs to take advantage of what immigrants and refugees have already done here and help them into the kind of jobs they had somewhere else, like doctors and teachers.