Friday, March 17, 2017

New Culture Of Denying Refugees Into U.S. Alive And Well In Vermont

Rutland, Vermont just said no to Syrian refugees,
following the lead of Donald Trump 
My hometown of Rutland, Vermont has been getting national attention recently over the intense debate there over whether to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in that small city.

Vermont has welcomed refugees from a variety of places over the past few decades, but as the Trump crackdown on refugees continues, it's affecting Vermont in a lot of ways.

If events this month prove anything, Vermont might be moving away from its embrace of refugees, too.

The debate over refugees has been pretty loud in Rutland right from the start. Vermont is generally quite liberal, but Rutland is kind of on the conservative side, at least by Vermont standards.

So the idea of Syrian refugees arriving there has gotten both lots of support, and lots of opposition.

Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras had aggressively championed the arrival of Syrian refugees in his city.

Make that former mayor.

Louras  was up for re-election on March 7 - Town Meeting Day - and his principal opposition came from David Allaire, a member of Rutland's Board of Alderman, who was against settling refugees in Rutland.

Allaire trounced Louras in the election. Allaire got 51 percent of the vote to Louras' 34 percent. Other candidates got small margins.

"I got smoked. Clearly I got smoked....It was a good old-fashioned political drubbing," Louras admitted to VTDigger, a Vermont news site. 

Part of Louras' problem was he never recovered from the fact that he was not particularly forthcoming to the public when the deal to bring Syrian refugees was being hashed out early last year.

But I'm convinced, and many others are, too, that just the idea of Syrian refugees in Rutland made many Rutland residents squeamish, to say the least.

Louras also told VTDigger:

"I think it just demonstrates that Rutland is still, as I said during the campaign and even before the campaign, Rutland is still a microcosm for the national conversation on refugees and immigration. I think the vote reflects that."

That Rutland is a microcosm, as Louras suggested, has certainly attracted plenty of national attention.

Breitbart, apparently Trump's favorite news source crowed:

"While Vermont is generally a refugee-welcoming state, the idea of dumping 100 Syrian refugees into this small city in Vermont that is already struggling economically seemed to defy common sense and logic, even to an area that preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump."

Slate, on the other hand, has a completely different take on what's going on in Rutland, and what happened to Louras.

Says Slate:

"The city of Rutland, which went for Clinton by about 13 points, is 96 percent white. Its population is both aging and shrinking - down to 15,824 in the latest American Community Survey estimate from more than 19,000 in 1970. 

In this, too, it represents America: Cites and towns without immigrants are shrinking. Those that take them are growing. This is true even in the quintessential Sun Belt boomtown Houston, whose white population has dropped by 300,000 residents since 1980, even as total population grew by 500,000. It is certainly true of older cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. 

And it's true of small towns, which increasingly face a choice: stay white and wither, or get diverse and grow. 

Rutland is taking the former path."

Which is too bad. As a Rutland County native, this area of Vermont could have a lot going for it. It'll never be the Vermont manufacturing and railroad hub it was during the early 20th century. But, with the rise of rural tourism and arts, a resurgent back to the land movement of sorts, and an internet age where a creative economy can rise, Rutland has potential.

Rutland also doesn't have to look far away to see how an influx of refugees affected another small Vermont city: Winooski.

A couple of decades ago, Winooski was a down-and-out community on the northern border of Burlington, which is Vermont's largest city.

A thriving textile industry in the early 20th century had died out, just as a marble quarrying and railroad industry in Rutland did the same at about the same time.

Frankly, Winooski was a low-income mess, a place nobody wanted to go to. It was a place Burlington commuters got through as quickly as they could to reach their more upper crust suburban homes in places like Colchester, Essex and Jericho.

Then Winooski started welcoming refugees from all over the world. It was at first an economic decision: The Vermont Refugee Resettlement program figured they could house refugees in Winooski, because the bad economy meant rental prices were low.

And so they came. From Vietnam. Serbia. Bhutan, Nepal. Somalia. Other places.

I won't say this created a utopia. The Winooski school system had to struggle with a huge influx of students who had to learn English as a second language. That was expensive, too. There were cultural differences. Fears that the immigrants would take away jobs from people who had lived in Winooski for decades.

But a funny thing happened.  Winooski turned......vibrant.

Oh sure, part of it was because of a big downtown redevelopment project hatched by a visionary City Council and some developers.

However, much of Winooski's new prosperity came from those refugees. I hate to traffick in stereotypes, but many immigrants tend to be entreprenurial. Interesting restaurants, shops and events sprouted in Winooski.

That attracted interest, and other businesses arrived. Most of them were created by locals who are not refugees, like this really cool Winooski barber shop I now frequent. Other businesses opened because of newer refugees.

OK, Winooski, may have a few too many hipsters nowadays, but that's a lot better than the doldrums the community was in years ago.

Winooski is cool. Rutland could be cool, too.

People are afraid of change, that's just human nature. Plus, we shouldn't change things just for the sake of change.

Sometimes, though, we have to overcome our fears.

Progress in Rutland is stalled now, because of anti-immigrant sentiment both locally and nationally.

As National Public Radio reported, two Syrian refugee family settled in Rutland before Trump shut down that program and before Allaire became mayor.

To be sure, many Rutlanders welcome the refugees.

Says NPR:

"Speaking through an interpreter this week, members ofone family said they felt relieved to be in Vermont. 'At first, we came her and we were surprised bythe very, very warm welcme by the people of Rutland,' one Syrian said. 'The mayor, our caseworker, our host family, all came and welcomed us, and since then, it never stopped, and people have just welcomed us and helped in every way."

That's one part of Rutland. One part of our nation. The ones ready to judge on a newcomer's character, not background.

The other Rutland, the other nation, cowers in fear. Shut the door, and lock us inside, safe from the world.

But that just leaves us more unsafe. What we don't know CAN hurt us, much more than the risks we do know about.

Of course we shouldn't let in everyone and anyone into the United States. We have a long, long history of both embracing and combating immigrants.

It seems we do better durung times when we welome people from other countries.

Yes, vet the hell out of all would-be refugees to the United States. Yes, we don't need or want a stampede of millions of immigrants all at once.

But let's leave the door cracked open, shall we? The nation we save might be our own.

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