A house divided: What’s driving the controversy over refugee resettlement?

Anthony Feasel

They stood by themselves, on the edge of a large crowd, two strangers who had something to say but felt they weren’t being heard.

Anthony Feasel muttered sarcastic comments under his breath as officials for World Church Services fielded questions from among several hundred mostly supportive area residents about the 80 African and Middle Eastern refugees the group is hoping to resettle in the mid-Hudson area next year. Those officials assured the crowd refugees arriving in the area would have been thoroughly vetted before arrival and would eventually become good, productive and hard-working citizens. None of the hundreds of thousands of people the organization had helped since World War II had ever been accused of terrorist sympathies or activities, they said.

“Yeah sure,” Feasel said to no one in particular, as those assurances echoed through the soaring vaulted ceilings of Poughkeepsie’s Christ Episcopal Church. A burly man who makes his living as a self-employed moving and recycling service, Feasel didn’t seem to want or need an audience, never raising his voice above a murmur.

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“What about the people who are already here who need jobs?” he said to no one in particular. “What about the veterans around here who need jobs?”

Emese Russell stood several feet from Feasel. She was eager for an audience. A slight woman with severe features, Russell hopped in place from foot to foot and waved her hand, trying unsuccessfully to gain the attention of the man with a microphone roving the church pews during a brief question-and-answer period.

“I’m a refugee,” she said, looking about a small gathering of standees that included Feasel. “I’m a refugee! From Hungary!”

But anyone who thought her status as a refugee made her sympathetic to the CWS’s assurances was mistaken. “This isn’t cutting it for me,” she said after the crowd began to leave the church.

Emese Russell

Russell explained she’s fled her native Hungary as a child in 1956, “running through fields, with landmines.” She and her family were ultimately resettled on a farm in Armonk, where she grew up. The family’s nearest neighbor was William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of what is today the CIA, she said.

Her family, she said, “didn’t get anything like this,” indicating with her hands the large crowd. “I’m very proud. I’ve worked two jobs, raised four kids.”

Russell said she resented the resettlement program and could hardly believe how little publicity had accompanied the group’s previous public meeting.

The refugees, she said, were being “shoved down our throats.”

Against the backdrop of a presidential contest whose victor has proposed banning immigration from Muslim countries, it’s not surprising that the refugee resettlement plan has proven controversial. Groups like CWS often work in this manner with local partners, and generally resettlement of a relatively small number of refugees over an area of this size (a 100-mile radius of Poughkeepsie) wouldn’t draw much attention. This time it’s different. The idea of terrorists posing as refugees has stoked fears, shifted polls and changed the course of elections in the U.S. and Europe. Syrian refugees have been singled out specifically: 26 state governors and more than half of Americans sampled by Pew expressed opposition to accepting refugees from that country following the 2015 Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Those critical of refugee resettlement often view it as being undertaken by government and elite/outside groups, using resources that ought to be directed toward local people who need help (especially veterans), with no weight given to community opinion.

But perhaps the current political climate’s impact on public opinion can be overstated. According to that same Pew study, Americans have seldom welcomed refugees. When Russell emigrated from Hungary, she remembers a much less robust institutional support system, but public opinion was actually more strongly against Hungarian refugees in 1958 (55 percent disapproved) than Syrian refugees in 2015 (53 percent disapproved). Other polls taken during periods of refugee resettlement recorded similar views: 62 percent opposed a plan to double the number of Indochinese refugees to 14,000 a month in 1979, and 71 percent opposed resettling “most” of the Cuban refugees who fled to America in 1980. The only poll that found majority support came in 1999, when 66 percent supported the resettlement of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

CWS has acknowledged that its communications should have been better. Still, refugee resettlement is not a topic communities can submit to a referendum. Once refugees are cleared to enter the country, they’re basically immigrants, and immigrants can live wherever they like.

Pat DeYoung stood nearby Russell and Feasel, but the look of dismay on his face said he didn’t share their views.

DeYoung is a student at Vassar College, a junior studying political science. He said believed the arrival of new refugees had “revitalized” neighborhoods he was familiar with in Philadelphia.

“They bring new business, new points of view — they make it more diverse,” he said.

He said he had a particular objection to people who questioned how refugees would assume jobs that area veterans would otherwise need, calling it a false equivalency and a misplaced concern.

DeYoung is an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan. He’s attending Vassar on a scholarship.

“It rubs me the wrong way when I hear that argument,” he said. “I’d ask what are [the opponents] doing for vets?”

As people left the church to make way for a scheduled service, Alison Spodek of Beacon lingered a moment outside.

“I was excited to directly help,” she said. “My grandparents were refugees from Germany in 1939.”

But she said she was upset by the voices of opposition she heard at the meeting. In a voice colored by disbelief, she called those who weren’t welcoming refugees “a vocal minority.”

Anthony Feasel also lingered outside the church after Spodek departed. He wanted to be sure nobody thought he was prejudiced. It’s just, he said, “This country is our house — we’ve got to take care of our own.”

He was asked what he made of Trump’s election.

“Trump will make a lot of changes. Will things get better? Yes. There’ll be a whole new attitude. He’ll run the country like a profitable business.”