Vermont Town Debates Welcome for 100 Syrians as Trump Pushes Ban

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A Syrian refugee girl plays outside her home at a tent camp on April 27, 2016, in Izmir, Turkey.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
  • Residents of Rutland seek public vote after mayor’s gesture
  • ‘I’m glad it’s not me in that situation, but I’m concerned’

In Rutland, Vermont, Independence Day was marked by fireworks, picnics and bitter debate over whether to resist the arrival this fall of 100 Syrian refugees or to welcome the asylum-seekers to America.

Mayor Christopher Louras announced the resettlement in April to the surprise and puzzlement of many residents. It was presented as a fait accompli in a celebratory press conference. And it provoked a backlash.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

Opponents want the October arrival stopped or put on hold. Last week, they petitioned the U.S. State Department to suspend the plan, arguing in a 171-page filing that the town’s challenges with opiate addiction and a poor economy should disqualify Rutland as a refuge. They want a public vote on whether to allow the Syrians in.

“That’s not going to happen,” Louras said in an interview. “We don’t get to vote on who our neighbors are. That’s objectionable and offensive.”

Across the U.S., about 5,000 Syrian refugees have been approved for resettlement, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with another 5,000 to 6,000 awaiting completion of security checks. The controversy in this Green Mountain town of 16,000 shows the political potency of immigration and fear of terrorism, issues that have propelled the presidential campaign of Republican Donald Trump.

Congressional Republicans have warned that Islamic State terrorists may be part of the inflow, and Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration. He carried Rutland County in Vermont’s March 1 Republican presidential primary, even as Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders carried the Democratic vote over Hillary Clinton. Sanders has said plans to accept Syrians should remain unchanged.

Stone-Cutting City

Rutland, which is about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Massachusetts border in southwestern Vermont, was one of the world’s leading marble producers in the 19th and 20th centuries, attracting immigrants, many of whose descendants populate the city today. The quarries are gone and today the dominant commercial building downtown is a Wal-Mart.

Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who settled in Rutland more than a century ago, says the refugee settlement serves not only a humanitarian purpose but provides a cultural and economic jolt for town that is 95 percent white, losing population and seeing young people flee.

“We need to find, just like a hundred years ago, immigrant families with a strong work ethic,” Louras says.

It’s the wrong time and Rutland is the wrong place, counters Dr. Timothy Cook, an urgent-care physician who says the area’s scourge of drug overdoses and deaths, plus an economy whose median household income is $15,000 below the state average, argue against the settlement.

“To bring in 100 Syrians refugees is absolute lunacy,” Cook said. “They could be 100 people from Quebec and we’d still have to make accommodations for them, and it would fall to Rutland city taxpayers.”

“We’re not able to do it, and we’re not open to it,” said Cook, who helped found the opposition group Rutland First and says residents, not the mayor, should decide whether the Syrians come to town.

Finding Space

Rutland’s economic vital signs are generally weak or lagging the rest of the state. Eighteen percent live in poverty, compared with 12 percent statewide. The town’s population has dropped almost a quarter since 1970.

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re letting them in. I’m glad it’s not me in that situation,” said Heather Turnbull, who runs a downtown gift shop. “But I’m concerned for them. Where will they work? This isn’t the best place, because all of the best jobs have gone.”

There will be jobs, resettlement supporters say. Tom Huebner, president and chief executive officer of the Rutland Regional Medical Center, which employs about 1,500 workers, said there are 120 jobs available at any given moment.

“We’re always hiring,” Huebner said. “The issue of job availability is not at all insurmountable.”

Louras said the “community is not at risk” and he defends the way he handled the settlement matter. He said that opponents encouraged by Trump’s candidacy are “driven by fear of the unknown.” In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris last November, when many -- and most Republican -- U.S. governors said they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, Vermont’s Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin said his state would.

Louras said he saw in that an opportunity to revive Rutland, so he approached Shumlin and the State Department about being the first community in the state to accept refugees.

Emotions here mirror the national debate over refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. While European and Middle Eastern countries have taken in more than 4 million refugees and Canada resettled about 25,000 during a four-month period starting last November, President Obama’s goal of accepting 10,000 this year is hindered by politics and the specter of terrorism.

The 4th of July holiday passed with plastic American flags lining a mile-and-a-half stretch of Main Street. The dispute isn’t evidenced by yard signs, but by posts on the internet and conversations among divided residents.

"What people were saying about Italian immigrants a long time ago mirrors what’s said today," said William Notte, the president of Rutland’s Board of Aldermen and a fifth-generation Italian. "Just take out terrorists and put in Sicilian gangsters."

Foreign Reinforcements

Resettlement supporters hosted a presentation last week by the city manager of Winooski, a northwest Vermont town of 7,300 that was aging and losing population until it started accepting refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other countries -- more than a thousand in the past three decades.

“It’s hard to deal with the unknown, but we now have a growing population and we’re younger,” said Katherine Decarreau, the city manager.

For Dave Trapeni, a two-time mayoral candidate and opponent of the resettlement, the 
risk of giving terrorists a toe-hold in Rutland is too great. If they weren’t Muslim, Trapeni said he wouldn’t be complaining.

“Look at Orlando, San Bernardino,” Trapeni said, referring to terrorist attacks there. “People are scared.”

Opponents collected more than the minimum 500 signatures required to ask the town’s city council to authorize a public vote. That approval hasn’t been granted by the council, and even if it is, the result wouldn’t be legally binding.

Still, the spectacle of a public vote on resettling Syrians would be an “albatross” around the neck of Rutland, making the town “look petty and backwater” to the rest of the nation, Notte said.

“We’re going to be getting people who in 4 or 5 years will be buying homes and being productive. They won’t be a drain – I think they’ll be a shot in the arm,” Notte said.

“There will always be people opposed to immigration,” Notte added, “but now we need to move on and stop the circus.”

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