Setting the stage: Western New York Refugee Flow Train Has Left the Station!


The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources-because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” Lyndon B. Johnson

    Immigration to the United States of America is growing daily. The land attracts hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year. In the last few decades, immigration has exploded. From 1980 to 2010, the foreign born population surged from 14.1 million to 40 million[1].

No exception for Western New York! It has witnessed and is continuing to experience a rapid influx of refugees bringing quick shifts to our society. Buffalo is in the midst of a wave of immigration, but the phenomenon is not unprecedented. Is History tending to repeat itself?

Using 2000 U.S Census data, Singer’s analysis of immigration areas during the 20th century found the following: “Buffalo is among the former U.S. immigrant gateways, listed as one of the central cities that had the largest numbers of immigrant residents in the early 1900s but no longer does.” [2]

According to the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, from 2003 to 2013, nearly 10,000 refugees arrived in Erie County. Every year, between 1,500 and 2,000 people are resettled in the Buffalo area. Ninety-four percent of the state’s refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and other countries live in five upstate New York counties, from Rochester to Jamestown.[3]

Data over the recent years have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Buffalo’s refugee population increased, and is still growing today. Although it is ranked last of 48 major metro areas in gaining immigrants, Buffalo’s percentage of foreign-born individuals rose from 4.4% in 2000 to 6.0% in 2010.[4] Major shifts in terms of population growth and the diversity of immigrants countries of origin have been observed bringing continuous change to our society.

The main point in this article is not to provide a history of immigration flows in Buffalo or to describe all local communities’ efforts in order to help refugees incorporate into their new land. It is to suggest evolving local community programs and different community actors toward the goal of collaboration with and empowerment of represented groups by increasing their capacity to advocate for themselves. The process of refugees’ incorporation into society depends heavily on the institutional capacity, resources, and experience of local communities.

Is the “CRLS Project” new vehicle for social transformation for refugees?

In response to the major and quick shifts with the refugees flow, legal services providers came up with the Coordinated Refugee/Asylee Legal Services Program (The CRLS Project). They sought a pragmatic way and proactive approach by developing a new delivery model that would deeply involve them in the communities, places, and institutions that affect their clients’ lives.

As a new collaborative project launched in July 2014, the CRLS Project has teamed up with seven partners providing civil legal services, including Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled, and Disadvantaged of Western New York, Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Neighborhood Legal Services, Vive, and Western New York Law Center.

While its main purpose is to expand the capacity to serve refugees and asylees on civil and immigration legal issues, it falls short of mending the understanding of client’s values and culture. Certainly, the CRLS Project’s partners have forged new opportunities to work together in greater harmony serving the refugees and asylees who face struggles integrating into their new land, where they experience differences in customs, behavior and social relations. More and more, the refugee population is assisted with legal issues involving housing, family matters, public benefits, health and disability, immigration, labor employment, consumer law, and education.

By so doing, legal services providers in the Buffalo area recognize that they have as much to learn as they have to offer, and they can only make a difference on important community struggles by working alongside the people whose interests we represent.

We are running on-site services and outreach programs in shelters, homes, churches and other places where people in need congregate. Legal service providers are seeking to establish a level of trust between CRLS Project partners, community leaders and law enforcement that should support the growth of further collective efforts over time. This commitment to relationship building is making possible a deeper awareness of refugees’ social realities, which involves suffering from crime and language access barriers.

For example, “as a way to reduce the robberies that have befallen vulnerable immigrant workers who lack formal banking experience and who are often reluctant to open accounts, police departments in both Austin, Texas and suburban Prince Georges County in Washington, D.C. have teamed up with local banks and community leaders to encourage immigrants to open banks accounts.”[5] Are we doing the same thing locally?

Clearly, these police departments understand that initiating programs that link refugees to banks promotes public safety in several ways. The primary aim being to reduce crime aimed at immigrants who are likely to carry cash, keep jewelry, and may be reluctant to report crimes.

Such collaborative approach is interesting and legal service providers have a role to play. As Rexer[6] advised: “We have to deliver legal services with more accessibility and less complexity using the tools available to us, or we put ourselves at risk of becoming obsolete”.

Does the language barrier matter?

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”- Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”

     A number of laws exist at the federal, state and local to ensure that clients who are Limited English Proficiency can access services in their own language. In the state level, Executive Order 26 signed by Governor Cuomo on October 6, 2011, directs state agencies that provide direct public services to offer language assistance services (translation and interpretation) to people of Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

Committed to provide free legal assistance to individuals with Limited English Proficiency, legal service providers are aware of refugees’ struggles to adapt, adjust, cooperate, and comprehend values and culture of their new society.

To overcome the language barrier, CRLS Project’s partners have made over the past few months a concerted effort to hold cultural competency sessions, develop a Language Access Plan, as well as develop personal and professional relationships in the refugees’ communities. By meeting people where they are, both figuratively and literally, we are better positioned to assist refugees in overcoming their struggles.

To sum it up, identifying, developing, and maintaining community partnerships and collaborations enhances capacity and extends services that would help refugees. Harris, Lin, and Selbin have claimed: “Organizing and connecting local struggles to larger movements for structural reform is a legitimate part of legal service providers’ work.”[7]

From this perspective, it is important and will be fruitful to revamp the way legal services are delivered in order to move toward collaboration and constructive engagement between legal service providers and refugee communities. Are we adapting or resisting to change?

Unless we keep communicating with others to share thoughts, problem-solve on cases and explore responses to emerging refugees’ issues, Bruce D. Reinoso[8] (Personal Communication, 11/17/2014) warns: “The next generation of refugees will become future centers of influence. The pace and scope of change brought in by them will sooner or later irrevocably impact all the society as well legal services’ funding regime”. Ready or not, here comes refugee flow in Western New York!

by Fidèle Menavanza


[1] Larsen, L. and Walters, N. (2013). Married-Couple Households by Nativity Status: 2011, American Community Survey Briefs, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, Retrieved from

[2] Singer, A., (2004). The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways. The Brookings Institution, Living Cities Census Series, p.1

[3] Miller, M. (2014). Refugees in Buffalo deal with scars from their homeland long after resettling here. Retrieved from

[4] Wilson, J. and Singer, A. (2011). Immigrants in 2010: Metropolitan America: A Decade of Change. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Retrieved from

[5] Singer, A., op. cit., p. 19

[6] Rexer, L., (2014). The future isn’t What it used to be, Management Innovation Excellence for Legal Aid Journal, Vol. XXVIII No .4, p.27

[7] Harris, A., Lin, M., and Selbin, J. (2007) From the Art of War to Being Peace: Mindfulness and Community Lawyering in a Neoliberal Age. California Law Review, Vol. 95:2073, p.2075

[8] President of Board of Directors, Legal Services for the Elderly, Disadvantaged and Disabled of WNY Inc.

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