Keeping land of the free ‘open’

Displaced people rest at a makeshift shelter in Mlyny, near the Korczowa border crossing, in Poland, Thursday, March 3, 2022. More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's invasion in the swiftest refugee exodus in this century, the United Nations said Thursday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

For a short moment last Sunday afternoon, New York state Gov. Kathy Hochul diminished the self-importance of plunderer and Russian President Vladimir Putin with one sentence. It was not intentional, but the point was clear.

When it comes to capital and finances, the Empire State is a bigger player than the globe’s largest country. “With the 10th largest economy in the world, larger than Russia, we realize the power we have,” Hochul said before announcing the end of the mask requirement in schools.

Minutes later, she signed an executive order halting state investments and purchases with a nation that has gone off the rails. Putin’s power play, which began last week with his assault on the Ukraine, is distressing and heartbreaking to witness. Innocent civilians are on the run living day by day with fear and uncertainty.

According to the Associated Press on Thursday, the United Nations refugee agency has predicted that up to 4 million people, at least, could eventually flee Ukraine. European Union Commissioner Ylva Johansson said “we have to be prepared for millions of refugees to come to the European Union.”

New York is home to the largest Ukranian population in the United States, according to Hochul who also emphasized a willingness to help those who are being forced to leave. “We’ll open up our hearts, our homes, our resources to the people of the Ukraine to say we stand with you if you need a place to stay,” she said. “If you want to come over here, we will help you become integrated into our community as we have been open to so many other refugees in the past.”

This region and Dunkirk, in particular, are home to a large Polish population. At the moment, their native land is one of the countries seeing a tremendous influx of Ukrainians entering because of the attack. Other border towns being impacted include Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.

How ready is upstate for potential new residents? Not as prepared — or open minded — as those in New York City. Downstate, 36% of the population is foreign born. That is one of the highest rates in the nation.

Here at home, acceptance does not come as easy. That’s a point U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, did not tiptoe around when he made a recent plea during a conference call with area media.

“I would hope … that we would welcome to America those that are seeking to flee that persecution and that threat to their safety,” he said. “We in the 23rd Congressional district stand ready to assist in alleviating that type of harm and that type of situation from occurring for people and families. … We should welcome them to the area and be part of the efforts to alleviate that threat.”

In the meantime, companies and small businesses across Western New York continue to seek out a sudden precious commodity: workers. Some of the sentiment locally is the new generation of workers is not as committed as are those who are of the retiring age. That may be true, but there also is a larger factor in terms of population.

While numbers have gone down in the county for the last 40 years, there is a trend upward that is not helping fill open positions. Our senior population is nearly 21%, that’s more than the state and nation, which is closer to 17%.

If no one is moving in, who will take those slots? Refugees from nations in crisis not only want a fresh start, they also want to contribute.

In a recent posting, a Bloomberg Law website offered a perspective from the book, “Immigration: Key to the Future — the Benefits of Resettlement to upstate New York.” Overwhelmingly, the site noted, those arriving to this region are bringing with them opportunities and investment. “The truth that New York faces is that a combination of an aging work force, baby boomer retirements, declining birth rates and outward migration of long-term residents imperils the future of smaller communities nationwide,” the Bloomberg Law article noted. “This void continues to be filled by immigrants who as a group serve as an important engine to our future stability and economic welfare.”

Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel cautiously noted this week that he is “receptive” to those from the Ukraine coming here, but notes, “there is much more (to it) than opening our doors.”

Jamestown officials, however, appear more proactive and engaged in the process. Mayor Eddie Sundquist, in a December community meeting, discussed the topic of welcoming refugees from Afghanistan and has since passed the baton to faith-based organizations.

“I’m very excited to see the possibility of us bringing refugees to resettle in the city,” he said in a recent interview. “It not only helps broaden the depth of our community and our diversity, but it brings about a new workforce and talents.”

That exact sentiment needs to be this county’s mindset. Anything else, as evidenced by an echoing Census decline, is just wishful thinking.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.


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