SPRINGFIELD – A full page taken by the Interfaith Council of Greater Springfield in the Sunday Republican today is requesting that Mayor Domenic J. Sarno bring unity rather than refusal around the issue of refugee resettlement in the city, saying in what it calls an open letter “no human is a burden.”
“Springfield is now the first city in the country whose mayor has refused to issue a letter of consent to allow refugee resettlement to continue,” reads the council’s letter.
“This is not a distinction we bear lightly.”
The statement, whose dozen signatures include those of the Western Massachusetts Conference of the Evangelical Church of America, Sinai Temple and the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, adds, “Instead of assigning blame to a small and already marginalized group, what if we were to bring people together – across our divides – to create real solutions? If, as the Mayor suggests, neighboring communities need to do more, one wonders what can be done to bring people together around such a solution. Many or us are ready to step forward.”
Following a unanimous City Council vote Dec. 16 supporting local involvement in refugee resettlement, Sarno issued a statement of opposition and in a Dec. 18 letter to MassLive and The Republican outlined why he would not issue a letter of consent permitting refugees to be resettled in the city.
A Sept. 26 executive order issued by President Donald Trump saying that refugees should be resettled “only in jurisdictions in which both the state and local governments have consented to receive refugees under the Department of State’s Reception and Placement (Program).”
The order states that these entities “are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or many not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance.”
A number of organizations have filed suit against Trump and others on the basis of the order.
Traditionally, the State Department has contracted with resettlement agencies who, in turn, work with local partner agencies in helping refugees use their federal monies to secure housing and other services.
In early December, Governor Charlie Baker submitted a letter to the U.S. State Department, formally consenting to refugee resettlement in the state.
In his letter explaining his refusal to do so, Sarno said, “It’s time for other much more affluent communities to take on their fair share.”
“My position has been very clear on that this issue taxes our city and school services and calls into question the accountability and follow-through aspects of refugee agencies, who not too long ago, placed a number of refugees in condemned housing units,” Sarno wrote.
“We have a number of residents in Springfield who need assistance and that will continue to be the concentration of my efforts. Springfield has proudly done more than its fair share on this issue.”
In an Dec. 18 interview about its work with refugee resettlement, Maxine Stein, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, the largest area agency doing such work, said, “Refugees are not taking services from our city.”
Stein, joined by Sara Bedford, director of JFS’ New American Program, outlined how the program helps secure market-rate rental apartments for new refugees who come with a one-time per capital federal grant of $1,000 per person.
Bedford said “refugees are not going onto public housing lists” and that the average rent paid in Springfield by a refugee family is around $915 per month.
The women also said JFS resettlement is done in a number of municipalities, including West Springfield, Chicopee and Westfield, besides Springfield.
“We have met with every town around,” said Stein, who said she has asked to meet with Sarno to discuss what can be further done by her agency that also offers citizenship classes to refugees who enter the country as vetted, legal residents to address any “gaps” he sees in needed services to refugees in the city.
Stein added in that interview she cannot resettle a new refugee family in a community that lacks affordable market rate housing near regular bus service and other needed services “just to make a point to a mayor over here.”
JFS is the oldest and largest refugee resettlement agency in Western Massachusetts and works in partnership with the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society or HIAS and the State Department in what, prior to the Trump administration, had been resettling some 240 refugees annually in the area.
HIAS is among the organizations that have filed suit against the administration over Executive Order 13888.
Last year, JFS resettled about 79 refugees in Springfield with about 15 children placed in the Springfield school system.
JFS has said refugees paid $107,800 in rent to Springfield landlords and that refugees find employment within two months of resettlement.
The interfaith letter, which includes information from JFS, addresses the refugees by saying the signers “see you and we are grateful for your presence here.”
“You are not a burden. We see not only your journey and your struggle but also your dignity and your strength; we see not only needs but also your many contributions.”
To Springfield City Councilors, the signers express “gratitude for your voice, your care and your leadership.”
The letter refers to Sarno as a “kind person with a compassionate heart.”
“We know that you care deeply about our city and its residents,” it reads.
“That said, we believe that your recent statement falls short of who we know you – and our city to – be. We have seen you listen and lead, and we are ready to stand with you. Let us work together to ensure that Springfield’s best days lie ahead, for all of its residents.”
Other signers of the letter include the Bahai Faith Community of Greater Springfield, Spiritual Services BMC, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Forest Park Zen Sangha, Temple Beth-El, Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield, United Church of Christ, Hampden Association (UCC) and Winding Path Tendai Buddhist Sangha.