How a Refugee Resettlement Plan Stirred Controversy in Vermont

Bronwyn Fryer, left, and Rick Lawrence debate Friday Nov. 20, 2015 in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., whether Syrian refugees should be brought to the state.

Bronwyn Fryer, left, and Rick Lawrence debate Friday Nov. 20, 2015 in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., whether Syrian refugees should be brought to the state. Wilson Ring / AP File Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Part 1: One mayor sees economic promise in opening his city’s doors to displaced Syrians and other refugees. But some critics see peril. “Rutland really is a microcosm for the rest of the nation in the summer of 2016,” according to Mayor Chris Louras.

This is the first in a two-part series on refugee resettlement in Rutland, Vermont.

When Rutland, Vermont, Mayor Chris Louras, began to push last year for a plan that would allow refugees from Syria and other countries to resettle in the city, he didn’t just see it as a way to assist people trying to escape war and hardship.

“These people are literally fleeing for their lives,” Louras said by phone in mid-September. “We have a moral obligation to help them.” But, he added: “I recognized it as an opportunity.”

Refugee resettlement, in his view, offered a chance to rebuild Rutland’s declining population, grow the local workforce, get people into empty housing and increase diversity in the city.

Late last month, a resettlement proposal the mayor backed won approval from the U.S. State Department, clearing the way for up to 100 refugees to relocate to Rutland before Oct. 1, 2017.

More people could follow in subsequent years. But how many for now remains uncertain.

While the plan to resettle refugees in Rutland has the support of many area residents, it has encountered stiff opposition as well.

The local controversy the proposal created mirrors political rifts over immigration and refugee policy in the U.S. that have emerged as flashpoints in this year’s raucous presidential election.

“Rutland,” Louras said, “really is a microcosm for the rest of the nation in the summer of 2016.”

In the Backdrop

Louras said his interest in refugee resettlement was piqued last fall after Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin voiced approval for accepting displaced Syrians in the state.

Shumlin spoke out in mid-November, less than a week after terrorist attacks in and around Paris claimed the lives of 130 people.

Around the same time, 30 U.S. governors, all but one of them Republicans, cited security concerns as they called for a halt in the relocation of Syrian refugees to the U.S.

But Shumlin took a different stance. “It’s the spirit of all Vermonters to ensure that when you have folks who are drowning, who are dying in pursuit of freedom, that Vermont does its part,” the three-term Democrat, who is not seeking re-election this year, said at the time.

Louras said he contacted Shumlin’s office in the days after the governor made his remarks to begin inquiring about how Rutland might become a resettlement site.

It’s expected that most of the refugees bound for Rutland will be Syrian and that some may be Iraqi.

Syria is now mired in its sixth year of war.

The conflict has left at least 470,000 people dead, according to one estimate from February, while also turning nearly five million people into refugees. Some of those displaced have perished trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. Among the factions fighting in the country has been the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS.

The Obama administration has said it will aim to increase the overall number of refugees admitted to the U.S. during the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 to 110,000, up from 85,000 last year.

As of Aug. 31, Department of State figures show that 10,740 Syrians had been admitted to the U.S. during the 2016 fiscal year.

A number of states, meanwhile—Alabama, Indiana and Texas among them—have been involved in legal cases over their attempts to block Syrian refugees from getting resettled within their borders. These states have so far had little success in these court battles.

The City of Rutland

Located amid Vermont’s Green Mountains, Rutland is roughly 70 miles south of Burlington.

In the mid-1800s Rutland was known for marble quarrying and was a railroad hub.

These days, General Electric Co. has a facility there that produces parts for aircraft engines and Rutland Regional Medical Center is an important local employer. About a half-hour drive away is Killington Resort, billed as the largest downhill ski area in the eastern U.S.

Between 1900 and 1970, U.S. Census Bureau data show that the city’s population climbed from about 11,499 to 19,293. But, after that, the number of residents there began to drop.

Last year, Rutland's population was estimated to be around 15,824.

“We still have the same number of homes available,” Louras said.

Some of that housing stock is unoccupied, according to the mayor. And there have been efforts in the city to clean up abandoned and run down structures. Louras recalled a conversation with Rutland’s city attorney after work one day, “lamenting how we were becoming property managers.”

Rutland City Hall (Photo by Doug Kerr / Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the same time, the mayor said, there are local employers who are “screaming for workers.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone in the local workforce is employed.

According to the Vermont Department of Labor, there were 21,050 jobs in August in the labor market that includes Rutland. The unemployment rate in the area was 3.8 percent, with about 850 people out of work, slightly higher than the state rate of 3.3 percent.

Even so, Louras said the regional medical center consistently has job vacancies and that there’s a shortage of labor for small machine tool companies, which can provide a stepping stone for employment at the General Electric plant. There are also service jobs at Killington, according to Louras. A bus route, he noted, provides a way to get between the ski resort and the city.

In terms of racial diversity, nearly 96 percent of Rutland’s population is identified as white in the most recent Census Bureau estimate, which is from 2010. When it comes to attracting and retaining young professionals, Louras believes, “they want to live in a culturally diverse community and that’s one thing we are certainly lacking.”

Rutland First

Where Louras sees an opportunity with the refugee resettlement plan, others see grave risks.

Surrounding the city of Rutland is a separately incorporated town that has the same name, with about 4,000 residents.

This is where Don Chioffi lives.

Now retired, Chioffi, 71, was a teacher at Rutland Town School for 17 years. He taught English language arts, as well as other classes, including one on how to build fly fishing rods.

“I still have kids to this day, well they’re not kids anymore, they’re 40 and 50 years old, come up to me and say I still have that fly rod I built in your class. It just makes my heart sing,” he said.

In recent months, Chioffi became active in a group called Rutland First, which has been critical of the plan allowing Syrian refugees to relocate to the city. The group, he said, is loosely organized and the number of people involved has fluctuated between 15 and 30.

There are a number of reasons Chioffi is troubled by refugee resettlement in the U.S. and specifically the plans for Syrians to relocate to Rutland.

But one stands out.

“Every single day, when you open up your television or you open up your newspaper or you open up your iPhone, what do you see?” he asked rhetorically in mid-September, a few days after bombs exploded in New York City and Seaside Park, New Jersey.

“I see beheadings. I see rapes. I see plunder. I see murder. I see bombs. I see pressure cookers. And when I look at all that stuff, what is the one common denominator that you see: Muslims. Now, give me a break. Are we really all brain dead in this country?” Chioffi continued. “We can look right in front of our eyes and see radical Islamic terrorism and ISIS making bold statements that they intend to use the refugee program as an infiltration method to this country.”

Chioffi suggested the only way to adequately screen refugees would be to “hook them up to a lie detector test and ask them the tough questions that need to be asked about their ideology and whether they intend to commit to the American customs and way of life.”

“You’ve got to stop this program until you can get a handle on it,” he said.

Rutland Welcomes

Unlike Chioffi, Jennie Gartner, 37, supports the resettlement of refugees in Rutland.

“First of all it’s the right thing to do,” Gartner, a social studies teacher at Rutland High School, said.

But, like Louras, she thinks the city could benefit, too. “Rutland needs economic diversity. It needs also ethnic diversity. Rutland is a pretty white place, in a very white state,” she said.

Gartner is part of Rutland Welcomes, a self-described grassroots group formed earlier this year after it became clear Louras was seeking to open Rutland to refugees.

“We’ve been laying all the groundwork that we possibly can so that we’re ready to welcome, hopefully, our new neighbors with open arms and with everything they need to get their lives started,” she said.

Rutland Welcomes is broken into committees and has organized events like clothing and furniture drives and activities to familiarize local residents with Syrian culture. Average meetings draw about 175 people and hundreds of others are affiliated with the group, Gartner said.

Asked about local opposition to the resettlement plan, she said she believed some of it had been fueled by this year’s presidential election, during which Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, has staked out hardline, and often divisive, positions on refugees and immigration.

“The political landscape as it exists today in 2016,” Gartner said, “I think, has brought to the surface a number of ugly things that we don’t like to talk about in American politics.”

“Rutland is not immune to that,” she added.

While that may be so, she does not think it’s accurate to say the controversy around refugee resettlement has “created this impenetrable divide between people in the city.”

“I think there a lot of people,” she said, “who don’t have an opinion on it at all.”

Laying Groundwork Quietly

After contacting the governor’s office last fall, Louras next went to the federal authorities and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office to ask about security measures and vetting processes for the nation’s refugee resettlement system.

That’s according to a review of the mayor’s actions surrounding refugee resettlement, issued by the City Attorney’s Office on Sept. 11. Rutland’s Board of Aldermen ordered the review, in part, to determine whether the mayor had run afoul of the city charter.

The document says it was in mid-December when Louras reached out to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to see if Rutland would be viable resettlement site.

This program is overseen by a nonprofit agency known as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, or USCRI. There are nine such voluntary agencies in the U.S. that work in conjunction with the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration to resettle refugees nationwide.

USCRI is the only one of these agencies active in Vermont, and is the entity that submitted the proposal to the federal government that will enable Rutland to become a resettlement site.

Refugee resettlement in Vermont dates back to the early 1980s, according to Denise Lamoureux, who works for the state of Vermont as its refugee coordinator.

In the last 25 years, she said, about 7,500 refugees have relocated to the state. These individuals have come from places such as Bhutan, Congo and Somalia. Previously, resettlements have taken place north of Rutland in Chittenden County, where Burlington is located.

After meeting with refugee resettlement program staff members, Louras conducted his own inquiry into whether Rutland was an appropriate place for refugees to relocate.

He spoke with the police chief, the superintendent of schools, the president of the Board of Alderman, local business leaders, and others.

As conversations continued between January and mid-April, Louras told those he spoke to about the possibility of resettling refugees in the city that the discussions were “close hold” and “relatively confidential,” according to the review from the City Attorney’s Office.

But the mayor denied telling city officials not to discuss the issue, or not to answer questions about it during this time.

Louras said in an interview that while these discussions were not secret, there was not a full-fledged public conversation about refugee resettlement in the early months of 2016.

Asked why, he replied: “I know my community and I know the city council, the Board of Alderman. I know that that conversation would have led to calls for a public vote on whether or not to do this. And we don’t get to vote who our neighbors are. That’s a fact.”

Next: In Part II, Concerns among city legislators, and a look at how refugee resettlement has worked in other parts of the Green Mountain State. Read Part II here.

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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