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Sarno seeks greater input in refugee placement

Date: 8/22/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – Mayor Domenic Sarno is willing to discuss his stance about a moratorium on additional refugees coming into the city with representatives of a coalition of agencies that sponsor the refugees, but he has made clear he wants the city involved in any future placements.

Sarno’s statement came after a press conference on Aug. 16 conducted by a group of representatives from social service agencies, the clergy and the organizations that are bringing refugees into the area. They met with the press to react to a letter Sarno wrote on Aug. 13 to Barbara Day, chief of Domestic Resettlement, Refugee Admission in the State Department.

The group said they were ready to speak with the mayor, but no date had been set.

In the letter to Day, Sarno wrote, “Although Springfield has a long and successful history of taking in refugees from all [over] the globe and my own family is comprised of immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life, I have no choice but to petition your evaluation panel to express in the strongest possible manner the city of Springfield’s objection to the placement of further refugees within its borders based on my concern for the safety of both our citizens and the refugees themselves.”

He added, “Throughout my tenure as mayor, there has been little to no communication with my office, the School Department or the Code Enforcement Department from any local settlement agencies.”

Sarno noted that refugees have been found living in sub-standard housing, they’ve been targeted for crimes such as fraud and robbery, and the influx of students from different parts of the world requiring specialized education has strained the school system.

At the press conference, Kathryn Buckley Brawner, director of Catholic Charities, said Sarno’s statements had created “a publically inhospitable stance,” while Franklin Soults, the communications director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said that he has heard similar statements in cities in New Hampshire and Maine, which he called “blaming the victim.”

Soults added that Sarno should be blaming “bad landlords instead.” He noted the immigrant population in Massachusetts is 14 percent and is 17 percent of the workforce.

Rev. Susannah Crolius, interim pastor of the South Congregational Church said, “It’s a slippery and dangerous slope of singling out a group of people and making them an ‘other.’”

Archbishop Timothy Paul, patriarch of the Holy Communion of Churches, said Sarno’s word could be seen as a “broader attack on the poor in the city.”

Although Jozefina Lantz, the director of Services for New Americans at Lutheran Social Services, said Sarno’s letter to Day had factual errors, the group was still forming a “more comprehensive response.”

Brawner added the members of the group are researching Sarno’s comments on the services refugees’ children need from Springfield’s schools.

Brawner said, however, that West Springfield has accepted 1,216 refugees as compared to Springfield’s 727. She added Sarno’s letter stating there are 156 more refugees to be settled in the city in the next several weeks is “categorically untrue.”

When asked whose responsibility is it to assist refugees settling here, Lantz said it’s the agency bringing in the refugees. They should inspect the housing and once the family is here, the agency should communicate with the family and support it. If a family “runs into issues” they can appeal to the agency for guidance, she said.

“But three years down the road,” Lantz added, “it’s not our charge, per se.”

In his statement calling for a meeting, Sarno said, “To be clear, this is not an attack on the refugees in our city, as has been stated by some. I deeply and sincerely care about the plight of refugees. This is a call to review the agencies in question. To ensure that those who relocate and directly house refugees in the city of Springfield are held accountable and responsible for thorough and professional follow through procedures and supportive services.”

He continued, “Please note I have no problem meeting with these agencies as I have done in the past, but they need to effectively involve and work with city leadership and departments right from the start in all decision making capacities. Three glaring examples of where much improvement is needed to be rendered by these agencies are as follows:

“1. Their direct housing placement of refugees require a certificate of occupancy issued by our trained city housing inspectors, which should be paid through their program to generate proper conditions for these refugees.

“2. Better coordination with our school department.

“3. Enhanced, longer and supportive social services to these refugees, not just 90 days.”