ALBANY - Reshad Ahmadi finally said, "Enough is enough."
As an Afghan consultant and engineer on a U.S. military base near Kabul, he said he was often threatened and even held up at gunpoint by masked men because he was working with the United States.
So in June 2017, he was able to get a special immigrant visa and bring his wife and two young children to the United States. He was aided by HIAS New York, a group that helps refugees, and now he lives in White Plains and works as an engineer in Queens.
"I feel safe," said Ahmadi, 32. "I feel blessed that I was able to get out Afghanistan and being given this opportunity to start a new life, and very happy to have a good job."
Ahmadi's story is increasingly rare in the United Stares and, in particular, in New York, which has had the third-largest refugee population in the nation.
The Trump administration's travel ban, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June for seven countries, mainly ones with Muslim majorities, has brought the number of refugees coming into New York to a fraction of what it was a few years ago.
Refugees entering New York, mainly in upstate cities, plummeted from 5,026 in 2016 to 1,281 last year, creating a vacuum for groups that seek to help refugees relocate from their native countries and separating some families in New York from their loved ones back home.
"It’s having an impact at this very moment, specifically for families who are waiting for their loved ones to join them and can’t get them here," said Beth Broadway, president and chief executive officer of InterFaith Works in Syracuse.
"It’s also going to have impact on our communities economically and civilly, three, five, seven years from now."
A drop in NY refugees
The drop has been felt predominantly upstate, where most refugees settled because of a lower cost of living and a well-developed social-services structure to help them acclimate.
The ban suspends immigrant and non-immigrant visas from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — plus North Korea and Venezuela.
Buffalo went from 1,772 refugees in 2016 to 423 last year, according to records from the U.S. Department of State.
The declines were even greater in Rochester and Syracuse.
Syracuse had 1,231 new refugees in 2016, but 188 last year, while Rochester's new arrivals fell from 699 to 151 during the same time period.
“It’s terrible,” said Lisa Hoyt, director of the Catholic Family Center’s refugee and immigration department.
These days, arrivals hail predominantly from Ukraine, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said.
Amid the Syrian refugee crisis in recent years, Jewish organizations in Westchester County joined last year with HIAS New York, a group founded in the late 1800s to help Jewish immigrants, to start a local Westchester chapter.
The goal was to help dozens of Syrian refugees and others settle in Westchester. They were only able to help seven families move to the area before the travel ban went into effect.
"It’s just a tragedy. What has happened in the last two years in this country is simply un-American," said Rabbi Eytan Hammerman of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, who helped the refugees.
"We are a country whose founding principles are of open doors. That’s what it means to be American."
What has happened
The drop in refugees is due to the ban, but also the Trump administration's decision last year to put a cap on refugees at 45,000 from any country who wants to resettle in the United States.
The cap for next year is slated to go down to 30,000, to go along with the processing of 280,000 asylum seekers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in September.
"This year’s refugee ceiling also reflects our commitment to protect the most vulnerable around the world while prioritizing the safety and well-being of the American people, as President Trump has directed," Pompeo said Sept. 17.
"We must continue to responsibly vet applicants to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country."
So the drop in refugees comes after the numbers spiked because President Barack Obama raised the cap from 70,000 to 85,000 during the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, Steuben County, said he supported Trump's travel ban because it makes the country safer.
But he said he would be willing to talk with his Democratic colleagues who will control the U.S. House next year on a new compromise.
"What we need to balance is recognizing that that threat is there," Reed said, "but, at the same time, make sure reforms are put in place to allow the American opportunity and American dream to be available to folks who want to come here and be no threat to our fellow American citizens."
Missing their families
The travel ban should be revisited next year, said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, who represents parts of Westchester and is in line to head the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The refugee ban, the budget cuts to refugee and humanitarian assistance, and the lower refugee admissions number all send a signal that the U.S. is not a welcoming place for people fleeing violence, oppression and persecution," Engel said in a statement.
"We need to be a check on administration policies that diminish America’s moral standing in the world.”
The ban hurts Faduma Abdo Isaq Ibrahim, a Somali refugee, every day.
She came with her husband and two of her children to Syracuse in 2016, but got separated from two teenage sons who were sent to Australia.
Because of the travel ban, she has been unable to get them to the United States, despite efforts by local leaders and InterFaith Works to reconcile the family.
"She talks to them every night, but she is not able to see them, to touch them, to be with them, to know what they are doing at school," Ibrahim said through an interpreter said. "She can talk to them, but she cannot be with them with all the things going on in their lives."
Refugees have helped limit the decline in the upstate population and often fill job openings, advocates said.
With the upstate population continuing to decline in New York — more than a million people have left the state since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — refugees and immigrants have been a source a population growth for the state.
Foreign-born residents — including refugees — helped slow Buffalo’s declining population by 40 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.
“You cannot sustain or grow a local economy with a shrinking population,” Hassett said.
Buffalo, the second-largest city in the state, accepted 4,485 refugees since 2015, according to the U.S. State Department, the most of any upstate city.
Syracuse took in 3,171, while Rochester had 1,833 and Utica had 1,238.
Overall, New York accepted 13,253 refugees since 2014, ranking behind only Texas and California.
“There’s really two things going on: One is that the ceiling is lower, the other is there’s no longer seemingly an effort to admit as many refugees as the ceiling would allow,” Hassett said.
“The data’s very clear: refugees and immigrants are a positive economic force.”