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Gillibrand pushes national monument status for Fort Ontario

Jason Smith

United States Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego Friday pushing for Fort Ontario to become a national monument. Fort Ontario was the only emergency refugee camp in the country during World War II.

Safe Haven notes there were 982 refugees who stayed at the camp during the war. Many of them were Jewish and they arrived in the U.S. as invited guests of President Roosevelt.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand reads a list of the names of the refugees who stayed at the Fort Ontario refugee camp during World War II.
Ava Pukatchq
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand reads a list of the names of the refugees who stayed at the Fort Ontario refugee camp during World War II.

There have been previous efforts for designating Fort Ontario as a national monument. Former Republican Congressman John Katko and Gillibrand pushed for a special resource study by the National Parks Service with the Fort Ontario Study Act signed by Former President Donald Trump in 2018.

While the study is ongoing, Gillibrand said it's taking too long and she's requesting executive action from President Joe Biden to designate the site a national monument. Biden has the power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to dedicate National Monuments.

"We're very urgent about this because a lot of the survivors from that era and the people who served the immigrants and the refugees are still alive," Gillibrand said. "We want to have an opportunity to stand with them when we designate this as a national monument, that they can be part of it."

“I am thrilled that Senator Gillibrand has continued to demonstrate her support for Fort Ontario," Former Congressman John Katko said in a statement. "She has been a great partner in our effort to give this truly historic site all the recognition it deserves.” 

Gillibrand's push for Fort Ontario's monument status comes at a time when New York state faces an asylum seeker crisis. With thousands of asylum seekers in New York City, several Upstate counties have issued emergency orders barring hotels and shelters from housing asylum seekers in the county.

"Upstate New York has been some of the most generous communities all across our state in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from across the globe at different times in our history," Gillibrand said.

The Senator noted Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams are working to find communities that do have the resources to support the asylum seekers.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks outside the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum on Friday July 14, 2023.
Ava Pukatch
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks outside the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum on Friday July 14, 2023.

"Our immigration system is broken," Gillibrand said. "We need a comprehensive immigration reform. We need to right-size immigration. If you talk to any employer in New York right now, I promise you they're looking for workers. The industries that are most desperate for workers are across our state, health care, education, tourism, hotels, restaurants. We need every level of expertise — farming, agriculture. If we could have the right number of visas for the right number of jobs and change our immigration system holistically, we would be a much stronger country. We would be a much stronger economy."

"We're going to work very hard to meet the needs of the 75,000 people that are already here, that have come most recently, because governors in Texas and Florida are very cynical and wanted to create political pawns, which is a shame," Gillibrand continued. "They should not do that with people's lives. New York is capable and generous and we're going to do everything we can to help those we can."

National monuments are established by executive action or passed legislation. In addition to sending a letter to the president, Gillibrand plans to introduce the Fort Ontario National Monument Establishment Act.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.