hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2016


Decision on refugees now months away

Rutland aldermen seek more discussion, decline to endorse program

Contributing writer


The federal government appears to have put off a decision on whether to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in Rutland after city aldermen chose last month not to endorse the resettlement effort.
The U.S. State Department had been expected to render a decision in mid-July about whether to go ahead with a resettlement plan drawn up earlier this year by state and national aid organizations with the support of Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras.

But in a July 11 interview, Larry Bartlett, the department’s director of refugee resettlement, said a decision would take another three or four months. Bartlett made his comments less than a week after the city Board of Aldermen sent a letter to the State Department saying it could not back the plan at this time and suggesting further dialogue.

The aldermen voted narrowly on July 5 against the idea of holding a citywide referendum on the refugee resettlement, as opponents of the resettlement effort had requested in a petition signed by 5 percent oft the city’s registered voters.

The aldermen have expressed their displeasure, however, with the secrecy in which Louras helped to craft the resettlement plan. The mayor had consulted only with the board’s president before announcing the plan in late April.

By the end of July, Louras seemed to have mollified some of his critics by announcing that he would form a “resettlement cabinet” to help steer the city through any unexpected problems that might arise as the refugees come to Rutland. But on Aug. 1, the Board of Aldermen nonetheless voted to launch an inquiry into whether the embattled mayor’s handling of the refugee program ran afoul of any law.

Meanwhile, although it now appears there will not be a public vote on the refugee issue, there are signs that public support for the resettlement effort is stronger than its outspoken opponents contend. A statewide poll by Vermont Public Radio and the Castleton Polling Institute found that 58 percent of Vermonters would welcome refugees in their home communities, while 27 percent would not. And in Rutland itself, an informal sampling of 50 people on a downtown street, conducted for this report, found those supporting the refugee resettlement outnumbered opponents by a margin of about 3-to-2.


City’s support in question
Just how soon any Syrian refugees will arrive in Rutland is not clear. When the resettlement program was made public in April, officials from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program had indicated the refugees would begin arriving in October. But that timetable now appears unlikely given the delay in the State Department’s decision.

The 100 refugees who would come to Rutland represent a tiny sliver of the estimated 5 million people who’ve fled the violence and destruction of the Syrian civil war. President Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 of the refugees into the United States.

Bartlett, of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, didn’t go so far as to say the political turmoil in Rutland was causing his agency to back off from placing refugees in the city.

“That’s just a normal timeline for us,” Bartlett said of the apparent delay in his agency’s decision. “There’s no hurry to establish sites by Oct. 1.”

But Bartlett did acknowledge that the city’s willingness to receive the refugees was “very much in review.”

In its July 5 letter to Bartlett’s agency, the Board of Aldermen wrote that “as the governing entity of the city, we do not feel we are currently in a position ... to provide a letter of support” for the plan developed by the mayor and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a private nonprofit group based in Colchester.

“We would welcome an opportunity to discuss the program further with you,” the aldermen wrote. The letter was signed by only seven of the 11 city aldermen.

The State Department bureau also received a June 27 letter in which Timothy Cook of local anti-resettlement organization Rutland First contended that the “level of secrecy and exclusion” in which the mayor and private aid organizations developed the Rutland resettlement program might violate federal law.

Cook pointed to a statutory requirement that the federal government, in resettling refugees, “shall consult regularly … with state and local governments and private nonprofit voluntary agencies concerning the sponsorship process.”

The law also states that the activities of nonprofit refugee-aid organizations like the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program “should be conducted in close cooperation and advance consultation with state and local governments.” Critics contend the city aldermen should have been included in the refugee resettlement group’s discussions with the mayor.

Cook’s letter also suggested the refugee program is a bad idea given Rutland’s “very serious economic deficits and ... grave social challenges.”

In an interview, however, Bartlett said that in the process of establishing a refugee resettlement site, “there’s no fast rule about what parties are consulted.”

“Our experience is that the more people are consulted, the better,” Bartlett said, though he added that “there’s not normally a public meeting on this sort of issue.”

He said “overall community support” is important, but he suggested that could be gauged from discussions with city officials.

“We want to know what the sense of the local elected leaders is,” Bartlett said. “We need to provide some additional information back, particularly to the aldermen.”

That could keep the back-and-forth going past the November election, which could produce a president-elect, in the form of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly inveighed against “radical Islamic terrorism” and called for a temporary ban on immigration by Muslims.

Sharply divided public
In an informal sampling of 50 people in late July in downtown Rutland, it appeared the city of 16,000 remains very much divided on the refugee issue.

Asked if they supported the proposed resettlement of 100 Syrian refugees who would begin arriving this fall, 23 city residents said yes, while 15 said no. Another 12 people had no opinion.
Some of those opposed echoed Cook’s view that Rutland needs to focus on its own economic and social problems before taking in refugees.

“We’ve got so many people here who are already struggling,” Matt Gibbud said.
But supporters of the refugee resettlement focused on the humanitarian need. Gene Rakow, for example, explained his support with a rhetorical question.

“We spend billions bombing these people homeless to protect us from ISIS,” he said. “And now we’re not willing to help them out in a friendly, non-militaristic way?”

The statewide VPR-Castleton poll also found sharp divisions on refugee resettlement, with 45 percent of respondents saying the arrival of new refugees would have a positive impact on the state while 35 percent foresaw a negative impact. The poll also revealed that attitudes about refugees divide sharply along partisan lines, with two-thirds of Republicans seeing refugee resettlement as a negative while two-thirds of Democrats viewed it positively.

Although only 45 percent of the VPR poll’s respondents overall saw refugees as having a positive impact, 58 percent said they would support having refugees settle in their communities. That may be because some people who said the refugees would put a burden on the state were still willing to welcome them.


Campaigns pro and con
While the State Department weighs its decision, groups on both sides of the Rutland refugee debate are continuing to press their cases.

In the aftermath of the July 5 aldermen’s meeting, which approved the noncommittal letter to the State Department, the pro-resettlement group Rutland Welcomes sent a mass e-mail to its supporters, urging them to send letters of support to the three aldermen firmly in the pro-resettlement camp. Another e-mail message from the group advised that “it has come to our attention” that Vermont’s congressional representatives had so far heard mainly from constituents opposed to the resettlement effort; the e-mail urged supporters to send positive messages to the congressional delegation.

Resettlement proponents have also peppered the Facebook page of the anti-resettlement group Rutland First with comments supporting the refugee program.

Marsha Cassel of Rutland Welcomes said in an interview that her group was not orchestrating the posts, and she responded to the notion put forth by resettlement opponents that Rutland needs to focus first on the needs of local citizens who already are struggling.

“We think that we can offer a safe and welcoming place to … these new neighbors ... and still help the people in our community who are in dire need of services,” Cassel said “It’s not an either-or.”

Among opponents, the secrecy with which Louras laid his plans for the resettlement program has been as much of an issue as acceptance of the refugees themselves.

“This is a city where you can’t put a bicycle path in, you can’t put a stop light up, without a public dialogue,” Cook said in an interview. “And somehow we’re not supposed to have any say in what happens” with the refugee resettlement.

The secrecy has been a particular sore point for city aldermen and prompted the board to push forward with an inquiry into whether the mayor exceeded his legal authority in signing the city up for the program. Board President William Notte said City Attorney Charles Romeo would be tasked with researching the legality of the mayor’s actions. In addition to the federal statute cited by Cook in his letter to the State Department, the laws in question would include the city charter, which states that the mayor “shall recommend measures and proposals for consideration of the Board of Aldermen.”

Louras’ July 26 announcement that he would form “a resettlement cabinet” or “mayor’s steering committee” does not seem to have significantly changed the city’s highly charged political atmosphere.

Louras said the new panel would “advise me on potentially unforeseen challenges we could encounter during the resettlement process,” and he stressed that responsible voices on both sides of the refugee issue would be asked to participate. As of the end of July, the mayor had not yet disclosed who would serve on his new resettlement panel or when it would meet.
Aldermen both in favor and opposed to the resettlement plans applauded the move.
Syrian-born Mike Kalil, who has lived in Rutland for 16 years, said he had faith in how the aldermen and the people of Rutland will ultimately resolve the issue.

“I’m sure they’ll come to a decision that’s best for the town,” he said.
He noted that he knew several of the resettlement opponents personally, has enjoyed good relationships with them and has never experienced any kind of threat or bias from fellow Rutlanders.

Kalil and his Syrian-born wife and two children are, however, weighing a move to Florida, which he said would mean Rutland County would have no longer have any residents of Syrian origin.
He said he was considering moving “tor my kids to have some diversity somewhere else.”

“I’m just thinking about my kids, that’s all,” Kalil said.