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New York Leaders Confront Fading Support for Syrian Refugees


FILE - A sign welcoming Syrian refugees is placed at the entrance to the office of the Arizona governor during a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, Nov. 17, 2015. A majority of New York voters are opposed to allowing Syrian refugees, a new poll shows.

FILE - A sign welcoming Syrian refugees is placed at the entrance to the office of the Arizona governor during a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, Nov. 17, 2015. A majority of New York voters are opposed to allowing Syrian refugees, a new poll shows.

A growing fear of homegrown terrorism in the United States has spread to one of its most liberal states — New York. A new December poll by the Siena College Research Institute reports that 52 percent of registered New York voters oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. presently.

Among those surveyed, 60 percent of New York respondents are "very concerned" that another terrorist attack will happen in the state in the near future, as compared to 12 percent that are either "not very concerned" or "not concerned at all."

By comparison, New York's highest-profile leaders — Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — remain strong advocates for those seeking refuge, pleading to their constituents not to allow others to play onto their fears.

FILE - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pictured in April 2015, pushed Monday for welcoming Syrian refugees into the country. "We believe in freedom of religion. It was one of the founding premises of the entire country,” he said.

FILE - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pictured in April 2015, pushed Monday for welcoming Syrian refugees into the country. "We believe in freedom of religion. It was one of the founding premises of the entire country,” he said.

While delivering a fiery keynote address to immigrant rights advocates in New York on Monday, Cuomo confronted presidential candidate Donald Trump on his agenda to shut America's borders to Muslims.

"You want to build walls? You want to keep the Muslims out? We believe in freedom of religion. It was one of the founding premises of the entire country," Cuomo said.

He reminded voters that nearly all Americans — with the exception of Navajo, Sioux, Apache and other Native American groups — are immigrants, too.

"It's not your land, it's our land. It's the land of immigrants. And don't you tell anyone that you're closing the gate and you're shutting down opportunity. That's not who we are, and that's not who you're going to make us," Cuomo said.

City efforts

De Blasio went one step further in his remarks to the pro-immigrant crowd, calling on New Yorkers to reject religious and ethnicity-based tests, or risk playing into "the hands of our enemies."

FILE - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio displays a photo on Nov. 18, 2015, of a Syrian boy who drowned when his family tried to flee the war.

FILE - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio displays a photo on Nov. 18, 2015, of a Syrian boy who drowned when his family tried to flee the war.

"It's quite clear that ISIS and other groups want to see division in this country, and they want the imagery of the majority in this nation turning against our Muslim population," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "It is therefore all the more important that we embrace our Muslim population at this very moment and we show this is a country for all."

Both Cuomo and de Blasio stressed the importance of reducing income inequality to both strengthen the middle class and fight discrimination against immigrants.

Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner for the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, announced a $7.9 million initiative to help immigrants access high-quality legal services, the largest investment of its type by a single municipality.

She says the city is doing everything in its political power to help both immigrants and refugees. However, she told VOA that there is a lot of "cultural work" that has to happen as well, in order to change hearts and minds on the Syrian refugee crisis.

It starts, she says, with placing a human face on the issue.

"There's plenty who are trying to create ‘an other,’ " she said, “but we are saying 'these are our neighbors, they're our friends, they're our family.' "

Meanwhile, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton addressed a conference of pro-immigrant activists Monday, laying out her vision for comprehensive immigration reform. She was also quick to criticize her opponents for “stoking” Americans’ fears and creating a hostile environment for Muslim-Americans.

“We are a big-hearted country and we should never forget that and we shouldn’t let anybody on the public stage say that we are mean-spirited, that we are going to build walls—mentally and physically—that we’re going to shut doors and we’re going to lose the talents and the contributions of millions of people who are here, doing the best they can, building lives for themselves and their children. We are a country where people of all backgrounds, all nations of origin, all languages, all religions, all races can make a home. America was built by immigrants.”

Clinton says that now, more than ever, it is important to respond to anti-immigrant sentiment and fear-mongering by other candidates.

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