Data from Professor Paul Hagstrom's first study of Utica's refugee population as featured in the film.
There were a few reasons we picked Utica to tell a story of refugee resettlement and one of them was the availability of reliable data.
But know this going in as we did: Utica kicks butt at refugee resettlement. that has been true for decades.
What we wanted to do, above all, was to tell a story that is not a statistical aberration, but rather one that is true many times over. We drove up to Utica for our initial visit knowing that Hamilton College economics professor Paul Hagstrom had conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of resettlement on the area, and that he'd spend time with us.
When we came across a copy of UNHCR's magazine lying on a table in the Refugee Center hailing Utica as, "The Town That Loves Refugees" on that visit, we were sold. What we had discovered was a small city that had its own story to tell.
On our tenth shoot in Utica a few months later, just as we were starting to wonder exactly who these locals were who seemed to welcome refugees so readily, John Zogby strolled into Shelly's office for a meeting. Turns out, his research poll on his fellow Uticans completes the picture.
What you have in Utica is an unprecedented influx of refugees, topping out at 1,307 in fiscal year 1997, and over 16,500 in total. You'll have to watch the film to see how things go for the Azeins, the Sudanese refugee family we followed.
Professor Hagstrom lays out the findings of his latest study for staff at the Refugee Center.
Paul Hagstrom’s connection to refugees is personal.
“For refugees,” he says, “it’s not a natural experiment like it is for me. This is their chance to restart life.”
When he was growing up in Wisconsin his family took in a Vietnamese refugee forced to flee her country after the Vietnam war. She lived with the Hagstroms for several years, eventually becoming a nurse and a successful business owner who brought the rest of her family to the United States. Hagstrom watched as her siblings graduated from college and themselves went on to professional careers.
That trajectory from impoverished immigrant to positive economic contributor became a focus of Hagstrom’s research once he came to central New York to teach economics at Hamilton College, arriving just as the first large waves of refugees were being resettled in Utica.
Hagstrom’s study of the fiscal impact of refugee resettlement on the local community shows the importance of measuring costs and benefits over time. Local officials asked him to determine whether refugees cost the community more in public money than they pay in taxes. Hagstrom found while government aid was front-loaded in the first several years after arriving in Utica, net annual benefit--the amount a refugee household pays in taxes minus the cost of local government programs—became positive after 13 years. After 20 years, he found, the total fiscal benefits of all the refugees resettled in the area outweighed the total cost. Another way of looking at it: after 23 years, Utica’s refugee resettlement program had paid for itself going forward.
In a second study conducted in 2017-18, Hagstrom found 58% of refugees in Utica want to stay in Utica, and almost half of them hope to start a business within a decade. Looking at the two studies together, the potential for economic development emerges. But Hagstrom says refugee resettlement is a humanitarian partnership, not a development strategy. Long ago he witnessed first-hand that gesture of human kindness and has never forgotten it.
For nearly 3 decades John Zogby has been one of the best-known pollsters in the world.
“You see many personal acts of kindness,” one survey respondent wrote. “I think people around here want to see our new residents happy and successful.”
Since his spot-on call of the 1996 U.S. presidential election, he has been recognized for his accuracy and unique methodology in political polling. He has conducted polls and surveys in more than 80 countries, providing analysis to governments and businesses large and small, finding meaning and direction in the collected data.
Given his business, Zogby could live and work anywhere. But he stayed in his hometown of Utica and runs his international polling firm from one of the old textile mills that dot the city. The son of Lebanese immigrants—his father arrived in the United States in 1924, the same year the government imposed severe new restrictions on immigration—Zogby is well-versed in the newcomer experience.
Among the hundreds of opinion surveys Zogby has conducted, one holds personal resonance in terms of topic and place. In 2013 Zogby sampled attitudes among people in Utica towards local immigrants and refugees. His survey found Utica to be a “welcoming community”— 69% of residents in the Greater Utica area found recent immigration to the area to be a good thing, 68% said recent immigration had enhanced the overall image of the area, and fully 80% of respondents in Utica wanted the immigrant population of the city to either grow or stay the same.
The survey found Uticans to be proud of their city’s tradition of welcoming immigrants, a history that goes back more than a century and includes waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the middle east. This strong collective memory of the immigrant experience created a consensus in Utica that the community overall is hospitable to a wide variety of people including refugees. While some urban myths and stereotyping persists, Zogby found little to no organized opposition to refugee resettlement. To the contrary, most survey respondents pointed with pride to the transformation of a central downtown church into the Bosnian Islamic mosque.
Zogby reported 73% of local residents see immigrants as a boon to the local economy.
Tax data and interviews showed that sales to immigrants and refugees stabilized the housing market. There’s enough visible evidence of the success of immigration and refugee resettlement-- including the downtown mosque, rebuilding of neighborhoods, and public school students graduating at the top of their class--that people in the area are enjoying the new dynamism of the city.
The story of America is the story of “opportunity” and “second chance.” In his survey of Uticans’ attitudes toward refugees and immigration, Zogby found the community responding in the best of both traditions.