State & Local Politics

How refugee limits could hurt GOP Rust Belt reps

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President Trump’s most recent travel ban cut the annual cap on refugees from 110,000 currently to 50,000. Much like the first ban, though, this latest one has been blocked by a federal judge.

Regardless of the order’s status, however, the latest refugee cut reveals a problem for GOP Rust Belt members of Congress elected by Trump enthusiasts: the prospect of close reelection battles as newly energized urban and suburban liberals defend their immigrant and refugee communities.

New York resettles more refugees than nearly any state and welcomes this role at the local level, including in Utica, an old Rust Belt city in the 22nd Congressional District. Refugees make up 20 percent of Utica’s population and come from many countries, including Vietnam, Russia, Bosnia, Somalia, Burma, Pakistan and Iraq.

{mosads}Neither Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri (D) nor Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente (R) think this will change in light of recent executive actions. The president has sparked a national debate, but both contend that Utica remains “the town that loves refugees.” “You can’t change what has happened,” Picente noted. “That this has been a welcoming community. Refugees and immigrants have contributed and they have become a part of the community.”


This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t divisions, even in a industrial city where a long population drain would not have been stemmed in recent years without refugees. The large immigrant and refugee populations in the 22nd District’s two largest cities, Utica and Binghamton, are within predominately white, rural, conservative communities. Trump won the 22nd District comfortably.

Americans at large have long been reluctant to accept refugees, and a national majority favored suspending immigration from terror prone regions, including refugees. Newly elected Rep. Claudia Tenney (R) of the 22nd District, for one, didn’t think the “hysteria” surrounding Trump’s initial executive order was justified.

Tenney, who has lauded the contributions of immigrants to Central New York and considers herself an advocate of refugees, nonetheless found herself defending Trump’s executive action as a safety measure and not anti-refugee or anti-Muslim.

She believed the real problem was “an awful lot of exaggeration and hyperbole.”

But while Trump was Tenney’s ticket to office, could he also become her downfall?

I was Trump before Trump,” Tenney claimed on the campaign trail. She rode Trump enthusiasm through a primary battle and overcame being outspent in the general by Democrats and by a wealthy, conservative-learning, third-party challenger. 

That was no small feat, but the district, like much of central New York, is more moderate than her brand of populist Tea Party conservatism, electing moderates such as Sherwood Boehlert (R), Mike Arcuri (D) and Richard Hanna (R) in the recent past.

Just two months have passed since Tenney replaced Hanna. They belong to the same party, but could hardly be farther apart in reacting to the president’s immigration and refugee policy.

Hanna, who retired last year, was the only sitting Republican congressman to endorse 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and in doing so, wrote a scathing critique of Trump. Hanna recently shared his belief that Trump’s immigration and refugee executive actions were “an inappropriate, unsophisticated message to the world,” furthered by people being “taught to see immigrants as criminals” and the “myth we are not vetting people well in this country.”

And there is no doubt that halving the refugee population will diminish revitalization efforts in cities like Utica. The national annual refugee rate has fluctuated over the past 30 years, but has consistently exceeded 50,000, and exceeded 100,000 a total of 10 of these years. The refugee cut will significantly decrease the number of refugees who will resettle in Utica, form businesses, and promote economic development, while reducing the number of smart young adults who relocate to attend colleges and universities in the district.

Rust Belt cities and economies can’t grow without rising populations, new businesses, more jobs and growing tax revenues.

Local political leaders know that. But it remains to be seen if conservative House members who represent these cities, like Claudia Tenney, will come around before 2018 — or possibly risk losing their job to Democratic challengers benefiting from a highly motivated base and increased urban turnout.

Luke Perry, Ph.D., is chair and associate professor of Government at Utica College, director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, election analyst for WKTV News Channel 2, and national political columnist for the Observer-Dispatch.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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