History in Ithaca

Known as a college town with a transient community, Ithaca has been home to relatively large immigrant and refugee populations. Of the approximately 30,000 people who live in Ithaca, the US Census estimates for 2015 projected there were 1,000-1,500 naturalized US citizens and 3,500-4,500 residents who are foreign born. Early immigrant populations settled in the “West End” and were nicknamed the “Rhiners” and included people of German, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Italian, Slavic, and Irish descent. Another large immigrant population in Tompkins County was “Syrian Hill.” Located in Lansing, NY, the Cayuga Lake Salt Company employed majority Syrians who founded the Saint George Orthodox Church. Some of the immigrant communities represented in recent Ithaca history include Burmese, Tibetan, Ukrainian, Guatemalan, and many others. In regard to efforts to welcome refugees, the Common Council declared on July 10, 1985 that it would be a “Sanctuary City” for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. Predating this declaration, the first Vietnamese refugee family to come to Ithaca, sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church, in August 1975. Vietnam, Haiti, Romania, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Belarus are just some of the countries from which Ithaca has taken refugees. In February 2017, Ithaca’s Common Council amended this Sanctuary City policy, absolving local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Current Status

Photo courtesy  Immigrant Services Program .

Today, Ithaca is home to both all manner of migrants: newly arrived refugee families, at-risk immigrants who have lived in Ithaca for many years, students at local universities, and seasonal workers. Current Mayor Svante Myrick has pledged his commitment to making Ithaca a place of refuge for residents with questionable immigration status. He has announced his intention not to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and encourages Ithacans to remain politically active and civically engaged. His words, and the legal ordinances that support them have made Ithaca an attractive destination for many migrants. This influx of migrants combined with topical changes in the political landscape have increased the burden of need.

Uncertainty about the longevity of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has created fear and confusion among local youth. As of Jan. 2018, there were 31,510 DACA recipients living in the state of NY. While local data on DACA participants is not known for certain, it’s estimated that hundreds of Ithaca residents could be affected by changes to this program.

Despite the Mayor Myrick’s and local enforcement’s position of not cooperating with federal immigration officials, ICE and border patrol agents have continued to conduct arrests within the city and in surrounding areas. This activity can compromise the any trusting relationship between immigrants and local authorities. A Rapid Response Network has been developed to document and provide witness to confrontations with federal law enforcement.

Another at risk population are migrant farm workers. Annually, an estimated 80,000 to 100,00 migrant, season, and fairy farm workers labor on NY farms. While most possess visas, those workers with questionable immigration status may not receive fair treatment or pay. Work is being done to connect these farmworkers with immigration resources, provide educational workshops, and advocate on their behalf.

The need to provide resources for newly resettled refugees has diminished in the wake of political opposition from the Trump presidency. Only 11 of the anticipated 50 refugees were resettled in 2017 as part of the Refugee Resettlement Program. However, there are still a great number of refugee and immigrant communities that require assistance in connecting with resources: English classes, legal services, employment, and housing.