We came to this project with a solid understanding of the positive impact refugees can have on a community gained via refugee focused work we produced for IRC and NAE. Still, the four years we spent filming and editing Utica: The Last Refuge served to deepen our appreciation of our common humanity, the challenges refugees face, and their contributions here.
We feel telling the story of Utica and how the Refugee Center helps resettle a newly arrived family will leave people with a sense of the informed kindness that produces a greater good. Utica is bouncing back from decline and we can't even tell you how many Uticans we spoke with who credited refugees for fueling this rebound.
Protestors in Utica were ready for President Trump's visit in 2019, many with signs showing their support for refugees in the area.
making this film is only part of the job.
"The resiliency and hope that Refugees bring wherever they go, but especially to a place like Utica, I think kept this place going when many, many other people were leaving."
UTICA REFUGEE CENTER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SHELLY CALLAHAN
Our involvement doesn’t end with the documentary. We are building a larger campaign to ensure our documentary and other films have the greatest impact possible.
We want to change the conversation about refugees in the U.S., and to dispel two myths frequently told, and too often believed, about them. The first is that they pose a violent threat. The truth is crime rates are lower among refugee populations than among native populations and there is data that suggests that crime goes down with significant refugee resettlement.
The second myth is that refugees are an economic drain on the communities in which they land. This may seem true when seen as a snapshot of a moment in time, but the claim depends entirely on the time frame being considered. Over a longer term, refugees have proven to be an economic boon. Paul Hagstrom's research in Utica demonstrates that after 7 years, the average refugee family is paying more in local taxes each year than they receive in local benefits. After 13 years, they have paid back in taxes all that they ever received in benefits. And, after 23 years, an entire refugee program will have paid for itself going forward. The cumulative taxes paid will cover future benefits given to newcomers.
the passion gap
Refugee Center Executive Director Shelly Callahan protests Trump's visit to Utica.
Nearly 60% of Americans believe the US has a moral obligation to help refugees.
On the issue of immigration in the US there is a “passion gap.” While the majority of people in the US are pro-immigration, and pro-refugee resettlement, the smaller percentage of people who are against immigration are much more passionate about voicing their position and about making sure it’s a prominent election issue. As activists, we know that it's unlikely that we will reach opponents of refugee resettlement. Utica: The Last Refuge is a documentary that will ignite passion for those of us who support resettling refugees and believe the United States should be a leader in exhibiting this kind of humanity. In short, we seek to level the passion gap.
Films may be the best way to give people a sense of what refugees are like, given that most of us are unlikely to interact with them personally.
Teams representing Utica's various ethnic groups parade at the beginning of the city's famous soccer tournament: The Redeemer Cup.
refugee focused organizations know that it's going to take considerable political will to insure that the new administration is able to hit its ambitious target numbers for resettlement.
Our goal is to help create that will. We believe that the world has a moral obligation to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. We know that refugees and immigrants have helped build this country and continue to make outsize contributions to our collective benefit. Utica can be a model for other areas and what has happened there can be replicated.
The effects of resettlement can create global ripples, too. The Biden administration has already pledged to raise the number of incoming refugees to 125,000. Refugee camps around the world are full of candidates for resettlement, but given the lack of personnel now available to vet refugees, ramping up will be a major challenge.
Our national goal should be to build the program to a point where we start to approach our capacity for resettlement, say 250,000 per year. Doing so would send a global message that we mean humanitarian business and help restore the country's status as a human rights leader.
We are currently trying to formalize partnerships with refugee orgs to build a coalition to promote change. It’s no longer enough for these orgs to quietly do the job of resettling refugees. The program has been badly damaged. We need clear communications strategies to create a national sentiment that will ignite the political desire to rebuild the resettlement program. It won’t be easy.
"I don't think we have a prayer of getting 125,000 refugees into the country [Biden's target number for his 1st year]. But man, I’d like to try. I’ll hustle.” Utica Refugee Center Executive Director Shelly Callahan
If the United States is going to position itself as a global leader in human rights issues, we're going to have to improve on refugee resettlement. Amidst the largest refugee crisis since WWII (coming from Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, DRC, and Sudan mostly), we are taking in fewer refugees than ever before.
Target numbers are set by the president each fall and cover the succeeding fiscal year (October - October). President Biden's target figure of 125,000 for fiscal 2021 is admirable, but likely unreachable. Not only have many resettlement agencies closed across the country due to the low incoming numbers from 2018-2020, but programs and personnel abroad charged with vetting and preparing refugees for travel was gutted as well. There are currently few refugees in the pipeline ready to travel.
a legal status
Local refugee and car mechanic An Wa celebrates earning his citizenship in a room full of refugees doing the same.
According to UNHCR, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” Typically, a refugee has fled their country of origin and landed in a refugee camp. After being officially designated a refugee they are then vetted by US authorities for one to two years before being approved for resettlement. Because they have a legal right to be here when they arrive, and a path to citizenship, refugees are distinct from immigrants and asylum seekers.
Sadly, fewer than 1% of the estimated 26 million refugees globally are fortunate enough to be formally resettled in another country each year. On top of which, there are arguably many more people who should be designated refugees, but the United Nations typically qualifies only people from specific countries with dire circumstances. For example, there are not currently any refugees in Latin America. All refugees are required to apply for a green card to become a permanent resident after one year in the United States. After five years of residency, they become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.