Cities across Massachusetts receive about 2,400 refugees annually from war-torn countries, and Springfield receives a proportionate share — about 300 last fiscal year. But what’s different in Springfield is the combative attitude of Mayor Domenic Sarno. To Sarno, refugees are a human services burden and a strain on the public schools. He is planning to renew his call for a moratorium on placing refugees in Springfield, following a controversial — and ultimately misinformed — four-page letter he sent to the US State Department last summer, urging officials to stop sending refugees to the city.
Sarno characterizes the situation in Springfield as “alarming” — houses occupied by refugees being condemned left and right, recent arrivals from warm-climate countries like Somalia and Iraq left ill-equipped to deal with the cold realities of New England winter, schools encumbered with non-English speakers. According to the city, it has condemned nine homes with refugee families in the past 18 months, mostly due to irresponsible landlords. The city convened a task force made up of several refugee stakeholders at the city and state level last summer, but the mayor suspended it this spring, saying he wasn’t getting any answers. While Sarno raises valid points about needing adequate resources to accommodate newcomers, his stance is far too rigid and ignores both the moral imperative to help refugees and the benefits those refugees can bring.
Only the State Department has jurisdiction over refugee placement and, once it determines host cities through a complex evaluation process, it contracts with local agencies to oversee refugee arrivals. These resettlement organizations, using federal, state, and private funds, provide services such as basic needs support, ESL instruction, and employment assistance. Federal data show refugees are assimilating just fine here. Massachusetts is among the top performers in refugee employment: 73 percent of refugees who enroll in state programs find work. Such immigrants can bring new life to struggling cities.
That possibility seems lost on Sarno, who has doted on casinos as an economic growth strategy while seeing none of the same potential in refugees. “Urban centers have become a dumping ground,” Sarno says. “What I’m doing is sounding the alarm. We do not have the capacity to take this on. The burden lands on my doorstep as mayor of Springfield.”
That is not exactly a welcome-to-America message, and those who work with refugees are perplexed at the mayor’s hostile attitude. Susannah Crolious, from the Western Massachusetts Refugee and Immigrant Consortium, says, “It’s bewildering to us why the [mayor’s] energy is being focused on refugees. And there has been no avenue for the initial conversation to continue.”
Refugees are often traumatized when they come to the United States; they shouldn’t also be stigmatized. While there’s always room for improvement in providing services, political leaders should voice a message of accommodation, not alienation.