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Community Speaks Out on Afghan Refugees

Johnstown calls itself “The Friendly City.” It was founded by immigrants more than 200 years ago but now has fallen on hard times with help wanted signs hanging in shop windows. It’s why Vision 2025 Together is weighing the idea of bringing Afghan refugees to the Cambria County area. But as more people are learning about the plan a lot more concern is being raised.

Cambria County Republican committee chairwoman Jackie Kulbach says the overwhelming thought is that the Greater Johnstown community would not be able to successfully handle if Vision Together 2025 were to move forward with a plan to bring refugees from Afghanistan to the region.

“Our taxpayers feel the burden of providing social services as well as educational services,” Kulbach said.

That concern has been bubbling for weeks after meeting minutes were published from a recent Cambria County Planning Commission meeting where a member of the group, consisting of local leaders from various public and private sector fields, said they were exploring the idea and making sure resources like housing, schooling and translators were available. It proposes recruiting some of the 75,000 refugees brought here through Operation Allies Welcome, designed to help those fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S. pulled out of there last summer.

The refugees are in the United States legally, albeit temporarily through a process known as parole. They will have to seek asylum unless Congress chooses to create special rules for them.

President and CEO Mike Tedesco told us that an exploratory committee has been formed to, “discuss the possibility of attracting skilled immigrants to once again fill our many open positions throughout the region, grow local business, invest in our housing, invest in our neighborhoods, and grow our tax base.”

Todesco said that because there are, “many skilled and patriotic immigrants that have fought alongside American soldiers, supported the American Dream and wish to pursue that dream for themselves,” the area can benefit from having them here to fill needs the city and region have.

Kulbach has concerns the city is ill-equipped to handle their needs.

“Greater Johnstown schools are struggling with the people they have now, our hospitals are overwhelmed, our social services that these people are requiring are county just can’t handle more,” she said. “You look around and there are a lot of help-wanted signs out but these jobs aren’t family-sustaining.”

She believes it would create an even greater need for Section 8 and low-income housing in a city where almost 40% of people live in poverty.

“(Section 8 has) just ballooned into making up the deficit in population by bringing in an increasing section 8 housing,”

Those thoughts were echoed by former Republican Johnstown mayor candidate John DeBartola, who spoke out about the issue at this week’s Johnstown city council meeting. He said he isn’t anti-immigrant but fails to see how bringing in the refugees would benefit anyone who actually lives within the city limits.

“City residents do not benefit in any way,” he said. “When will those in power help the city residents who are struggling?”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., agrees it would be a lot to handle locally for a county he mostly represents.

“The Biden administration has washed their hands of this and so it falls on the state or perhaps on the local level,” Thompson said. “That’s a heck of a responsibility to be dumped on the state or local government.”

But Cambria County President Commissioner Tom Cherninsky, D-Cambria, who was in that planning commission meeting said that while county government is not involved in the recruiting, “America and Cambria County were built by immigrants.”

He added, “If any of the refugees want to work, contribute to our economy, and be law-abiding residents they should have the opportunity to build a new life.”

Mayor Frank Jankovic, D-Johnstown, is on the Vision 2025 board and said the city has a history of welcoming those who come here.

“I look at council here, I don’t see any of us being natives of America,” Janakovic said. “I think we’ve always welcomed all people, whatever race, color, place of origin.”

Tedesco said in a statement to 6 News Tuesday that, “decisions have been made other than to create a thoughtful and deliberate plan that benefits greater Johnstown most.”

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