In Upstate New York, A Refugee Haven Prepares For Trump Presidency Utica, N.Y., reshaped its culture and economy by opening the door to refugee immigrants. People in Utica are asking what happens to their experiment after President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
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In Upstate New York, A Refugee Haven Prepares For Trump Presidency

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In Upstate New York, A Refugee Haven Prepares For Trump Presidency

In Upstate New York, A Refugee Haven Prepares For Trump Presidency

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The city of Utica in upstate New York has been a model of refugee resettlement for 40 years. Local leaders say newcomers from war-torn countries including thousands of Muslims have helped stabilize the population and the economy. Now the city is bracing for President-elect Donald Trump, and he's promised big changes to America's refugee program. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Shelly Callahan looks in on a class of refugees studying that most mysterious of skills - how to drive on icy roads in upstate New York.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: Traffic safety - it looks like they're getting winter driving tips.

MANN: For decades, this is the kind of thing Utica's refugee resettlement experiment focused on - the nuts and bolts of moving thousands of people from crisis to stability, jobs, housing, transportation. But during the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump recast Muslim refugees as a danger to places like Utica, importing terror and crime.

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DONALD TRUMP: I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration that if I win, they're going back. They're going back. I'm telling you they're going back.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

MANN: Now Trump is president-elect, and Callahan, who runs the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, says she's not sure what will happen next. She's watching for what she describes as warning signs.

CALLAHAN: I think if he were to decrease the number of refugees that the U.S. agrees to take in, if he uses religion or some other measure as some litmus test for entry, if he starts deporting people...

MANN: There are already thousands of Muslim refugees living in this Rust Belt town, working in local factories and hotels. Some have been here for decades, and many are American citizens. Others, including a small group of Syrians, have just started arriving. Bleecker Street was once an Italian business district. Now it's mostly immigrants from Iraq, Somalia, Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MANN: In a Somali-owned grocery, when asked about Trump and his ideas, the men fall into a quiet debate. They're worried about anti-Muslim sentiment and the rash of hate crimes across the U.S. They aren't sure it's safe to talk to a reporter. But Mohamed Gabril decides to speak. He's 22, an American citizen who's lived in Utica most of his life.

MOHAMED GABRIL: He thinks all Muslims are terrorists, and that's pretty offensive, you know?

MANN: Trump spoke often about Somali refugees during the campaign. He said Somali families were being imposed on towns across the U.S. that don't want them.

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TRUMP: And they're coming from the most dangerous territories and countries anywhere in the world - right? - a practice which has to be - has to stop, has to stop.

MANN: Critics of America's refugee program point to rare cases of criminal behavior. A Bosnian immigrant from Utica was arrested last year in Indiana for allegedly aiding another man who was trying to support ISIS. That case is still pending.

In all, the State Department says there have been about a dozen cases of refugees being arrested or deported for some kind of terror-related activity, a dozen out of roughly 800,000 refugees admitted over the last 15 years. Mohamed Gabril, the grocer, says he doesn't think Donald Trump's beliefs about Muslim immigrants will affect his life.

GABRIL: Being in the United State, having the Constitution backing us up, I don't think he can do anything like that anyway, so...

MANN: You feel safe.

GABRIL: I feel safe, yeah. I mean he probably just said it just to get those ignorant people out there in the United State that think that Muslims are a terrible people out there - to get their votes. It worked I guess for him.

MANN: You hear this a lot in Utica. People debate whether Trump's campaign promises will translate into actual policy. But there's also growing talk of resisting any federal changes that might derail the Utica experiment. Here's Mayor Robert Palmieri.

ROBERT PALMIERI: What happens throughout the country I can't control. We certainly can control what happens in Utica, N.Y., and I don't think you'll ever see anything differently in Utica than where we are at this point. We're a very warm community.

MANN: But some refugee advocates here worry that Trump's warnings will have a chilling effect on business owners who are a big part of the Utica experiment. Those local companies give Muslim refugees their first jobs in America. The fear is that the message now from Washington is that these newcomers are risky and unwelcome. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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