Plan to Take In Syrian and Iraqi Refugees Divides Vermont Town


RUTLAND, Vt. — They hustled into the church on a biting winter evening, unburdened themselves of scarves and gloves, and settled into pews to sound out words in Arabic.

“Ahlan fii Rutland,” said Fran Knapp, a retiree who lives about 20 minutes away, one of two or three dozen people who have attended a class here on rudimentary Arabic.

Welcome to Rutland.

It was one of many preparations this remote city in central Vermont is making before 100 refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive here over the next year, with the first expected to come later this month.

The plan — born in a time of deep national discord over Muslim immigration and criticism by President-elect Donald J. Trump of Syrian refugees specifically — has divided the city. A vocal opposition group called Rutland First sprang up, as did another effort, known as Rutland Welcomes, to collect donated items, help the new arrivals and watch for job openings that might suit them.

The proposal’s fiercest advocate has been the mayor of Rutland, Christopher Louras, who has often cited not the moral argument for resettling refugees, but an economic one: This shrinking city, long removed from its heyday as a marble producer and regional railroad hub, needs every new resident it can get. Syrian refugees, he has said, are an opportunity.

“Rutland’s demographic condition right now is not just one of a declining population, but it’s also a graying population,” said Mr. Louras, who became the mayor about 10 years ago as a Republican, but has since become an independent. “We need people,” Mr. Louras added.

But the preparations are unfolding under a cloud of uncertainty, because it is not yet clear whether, as president, Mr. Trump will make good on his campaign promise to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States and how that would affect the programs in Rutland and elsewhere.

“We are continuing to move forward as if nothing has changed,” Mr. Louras said.

Immigration is part of the history of every American city. But experts say that in recent years, some towns and cities, reeling from shifts in the economy and declining populations, have focused anew on potential economic benefits from immigration or refugee resettlement, even as immigration has become the subject of partisan political battles.

“Over the last couple of decades, especially in the last 10 years, places have started to develop strategies to attract and retain immigrants and resettle refugees in order to boost their economic activity,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied refugee resettlement in American cities.

Refugees are a small subset of immigrants, and many cities that have made a point of welcoming them say that they do so primarily for humanitarian, not economic, reasons. But as cities in the Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, and in other parts of the country, like Maine and upstate New York, set up offices to connect immigrants and refugees with services and job opportunities, advocates say economic benefits have arisen as a result.

“We’ve seen a few neighborhoods kind of turn around because of immigrants and refugees moving in,” said Melissa Bertolo, the coordinator for one such support group, Welcome Dayton. She added that cities in the Rust Belt are “all looking at how immigrant integration plays a part in that revitalization of a city.”

That is what some are hoping for here in Rutland, as the state suffers from population stagnation, according to Art Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont. The birthrate has declined and net migration has slowed, which Mr. Woolf ascribed to Americans’ increasing preference for cities and dense suburbs.

“I think we’re right on the beginning of the cusp of serious, serious labor problems,” said Mr. Woolf, who added that the state’s unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, was a sign of more trouble to come. “We’re low because there’s nobody available to work.”

Nowhere is that more pronounced, Mr. Woolf said, than Rutland County, here in the center of the state, which has lost residents since 2000. The city of Rutland has 15,824 residents, according to an estimate by the United States Census Bureau, which said the city had lost 4 percent of its population since 2010. The highest population for Rutland recorded by the Census Bureau was 19,293, in 1970.

It is a striking community, lately hobbled by isolation: There are mountains on the horizon, but the city is an hour away from the major highways to its east and west. Its status as a railroad hub and a marble powerhouse is long gone, and recent decades have seen the loss of major factory employers.

“It hit a peak, it leveled off, and now we’re trying to find ourselves, quite frankly,” said Will Notte, 45, the president of the board of selectmen and a fifth-generation Rutlander who supports the refugee proposal.

The city’s tiny downtown is making its way back from the recession and a well-documented fight against heroin; new bookstores, furniture stores and clothing boutiques have opened there in recent years.

But city leaders are worried that population loss could make it harder for the remaining major employers, like General Electric plants that make parts for aircraft engines and the Rutland Regional Medical Center, to stay here. They are putting $100,000 toward a $200,000 effort from local economic development groups to market the area and try to draw more residents.

Syrian refugees, business leaders say, could become an integral part of that effort, both by adding to the population — if only slightly — and bringing more cultural diversity that they hope might attract younger residents.

“We’re about to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get people to live here,” said Mary Cohen, the executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. “How could I say no” to refugees, she asked.

The plan originated in the fall of 2015, when, after that November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Mr. Trump and more than two dozen governors expressed opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. But Peter Shumlin, the departing Democratic governor of Vermont, said the state would welcome Syrian refugees, and Mr. Louras texted the governor to see whether they could bring refugees to Rutland. Rutland was officially selected by the State Department as a resettlement site in September, and the effort will be run by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

“I saw that as an opportunity to grow our population, bring in individuals, families, new Americans from Syria who have a strong work ethic, who were fleeing for their lives and looking to rebuild those shattered lives,” Mr. Louras said.

Leaders elsewhere have promoted the potential economic benefits of refugees since last year’s wave of opposition against Syrian refugees. “The economic benefits refugees bring to Missouri and to the St. Louis region are real and significant,” wrote Joe Reagan, the president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, in December 2015.

And this past October, Mayor John Hamilton of Bloomington, Ind., wrote an op-ed in The Herald Times of Bloomington in support of a new resettlement program in the area: “All the evidence suggests that these refugees strengthen the communities — and the economies — where they settle.”

But the argument did not go down well among everyone in Rutland. One online petition referred to the refugees as “the same people who hate us.” Rutland First, the opposition group, emerged — using a Facebook page that has drawn vitriolic and obscene comments about refugees — with the goal of blocking or delaying the plan. Over the summer, seven of Rutland’s 11 aldermen voted to send a letter to the State Department saying they did not support the plan, noting that “a significant part of our community has also grown anxious about the program, due in large part to the limited community education and outreach that has occurred.”

Many members of Rutland First say that they are not biased or xenophobic, as their critics have said, but that Mr. Louras was not transparent about the plan and that they have economic concerns about whether the city can absorb the new arrivals.

“We’re kind of stuck out here, with our level of economic depression, with our level of crime and drug issues,” said Timothy Cook, a doctor and an Army Reserve colonel who gave Rutland First its name. “We’re the ones who are gonna have to foot the bill for this.”

A report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that between 2011 and 2013, first-generation immigrants cost states about $1,600 per person — but that the second- and third-generation immigrants contributed $1,700 and $1,300 to state and local budgets, respectively.

And that, ultimately, is what business leaders in Rutland hope will happen if the refugees put down roots in Rutland.

Resettlement, said Lyle Jepson, the executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corporation, is “supporting people when they need help.”

But, he added, “Frankly, we need help. We need people to join our community.”

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