The corner of Genesee and Bleecker streets, Utica, 1914.

In 1900 Utica was the country's 66th largest city.

Refugees and their children now make up nearly 20% of Utica's population.

At the start of the 20th century, Utica was in the midst of a manufacturing boom that drew tens of thousands of immigrants to the city. Between 1880 and 1930 it grew by nearly seventy thousand, as Italians, Poles, Germans, Irish and Arabs arrived to work in the city’s textile mills. For the next 30 years, Utica maintained a population of more than 100,000, a vibrant American city with a decidedly ethnic flavor. 

Then Utica began to struggle. Beginning around 1960, industry and other employers left. By 2000, 40% of its inhabitants were gone, too.  With the city emptied, properties lost value. An arson epidemic in the 1990s brought the Utica to its nadir.

But as entire neighborhoods fell into disrepair, many Uticans were unaware that help was on its way--from an unexpected source. In the '80s, Utica had begun accepting refugees. The '90s brought a heavy influx of Bosnian refugees fleeing the civil war that ravaged their home in Yugoslavia. Quietly, refugees were beginning to revitalize the area.

The angular stucco facades favored by Bosnian builders began to appear across the city, ethnic restaurants opened, and the city's population stabilized. By 2005, UNHCR had devoted an issue of its magazine to Utica, declaring it, "The Town That Loves Refugees." Utica now has three mosques, two Buddhist temples, and several Christian churches, with predominately refugee congregations. As of 2020, more than 16,500 refugees have passed through the city's Refugee Center.


refugee arrivals

Annual refugee arrivals, 1993 - 2020
Source: MVRCR
Refugee resettlement started slowly in Utica. In the 1970s, religious leaders in the area began bringing Amerasians to the city, children fathered by US soldiers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. When fulfilling this moral obligation proved successful, the program was accelerated. The establishment of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in 1979 recognized that the resettlement process could be made easier for refugees via personnel dedicated to determining what refugees need at different steps along the way.

When former Yugoslavia exploded in ethnic war in the 1990s, Utica was well positioned to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Resettlement peaked from 1996-1999 as the city resettled an average of more than 1,000 refugees each year. MVRCR's reputation as one of the leading resettlement agencies in the country was cemented as the city began to stabilize.

Due to the severe drop in the number of incoming refugees during the four years we were producing our documentary, from 2017-2020, many U.S. resettlement agencies were forced to close. Fewer refugees were resettled in Utica, too, but MVRCR was able to stay afloat, taking in some refugees other areas could no longer accept. As such, Utica is well positioned to help the State Department’s resettlement program return to the role it once played in helping the world’s refugees build a better and more secure future for their families.  

"it's unbelievable to me that anyone would gut the refugee resettlement program. It should be considered one of the crown jewel's of the state department's work."

Shelly Callahan, Utica Refugee Center Executive Director


by ethnicity

Top ethnic groups in Utica likely to have arrived as refugees
Source: Fiscal Policy Institute

"the immigration issue is complex. I get that as an elected official. but I also understand the successes of it, which I think others need to see. perhaps that can help with the complexities of it."

Anthony Picente, Utica County executive

What we generally say about Utica when we're trying to assert the significance of its refugees is that "nearly 20% of its population is now made up of refugees and their children." We believe this to be true, though we have to admit that hard data is not available to back it up. We know that The Center has resettled 16,500 refugees since its founding. This figure is more than 25% of Utica's population (61,248 in 2017) by itself but doesn't account for migration of refugees in and out of Utica. This "secondary migration" is not tracked so we're left with less perfect measures.

To make our best estimate, we look at Utica's ethnic groups, knowing that specific groups almost certainly came here as refugees.

While there is certainly much to debate about how the US does refugee resettlement, one of the State Department's wiser policies is to place ethnic groups together in a given area. The result is that these groups take care of one another and ease the burden placed on local institutions. This is certainly evident in Utica with its Bosnian, Burmese, and various African populations and their corresponding cultural associations that dot the city.