The city of Utica in upstate New York has been a model of refugee resettlement for 40 years.
Local leaders say immigrants from war-torn countries, including thousands of Muslim immigrants, have helped stabilize the population and economy. But now Utica is bracing for president-elect Donald Trump, who has promised big changes to America’s refugee program.
Shelly Callahan, who runs the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, looked in on a class of refugees studying one of the most mysterious of skills: how to drive on icy roads in upstate New York.
“Looks like they’re getting winter driving tips,” she says.
For decades, Utica’s refugee resettlement experiment has focused on the nuts and bolts of moving thousands of people from crisis to stability — jobs, housing and transportation.
But during the campaign, Trump recast Muslim refugees as a danger to places like Utica, importing terror and crime.
“I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they’re going back,” Trump said. “They’re going back, I’m telling you. They’re going back!”
Now Callahan says she’s not sure what will happen next. She’s watching for what she describes as warning signs.
“I think if he were to decrease the number of refugees that the U.S. agrees to take in,” she says. “If he uses religion or some other measure as some litmus test for entry, if he starts deporting people …”
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, but now it’s mostly immigrants from Iraq, Somalia and Vietnam.
When asked about Trump and his ideas, the men in a Somali-owned grocery 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 decided to speak. He is a 22-year-old American citizen who has lived in Utica most of his life.
“[Trump] thinks all Muslims are terrorists,” Gabril says. “And that’s pretty offensive. You know?”
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.
“And they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries anywhere in the world, right?” Trump said. “A practice which has to be, has to stop, has to stop.”
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.
Gabril says he doesn’t think Trump’s beliefs about Muslim immigrants will affect his life.
“Being in the United States, having the Constitution backing us up, I don’t think he can do anything like that anyway,” Gabril says. “I feel safe, yeah. He probably just said it just to get those ignorant people out there in the United States that think that Muslims are terrible people out there to get their votes. It worked, I guess, for him.”
You hear this sentiment 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.
“What happens throughout the country, I can’t control,” says Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri. “We certainly can control what happens in Utica, New York. 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.”
But some refugee advocates 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.