On March 24, 2021

Scott calls on U.S. State Department to send more refugees to Vermont

Will Rutland again be designated as a resettlement site?

By Kit Norton/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott is calling on the federal government to resettle more refugees in Vermont, describing it as integral to his plans to grow the state’s economy and workforce.

Scott wrote to the U.S. Dept. of State on Monday, March 15, urging the federal government to triple the number of refugees it hopes to send Vermont next year. This federal fiscal year, which ends in September, the state was slated to receive 100 refugees, though it’s not currently on pace to reach that goal.

The Republican governor wrote that he views refugee resettlement as essential to addressing the state’s demographic challenges. “Refugees are an integral part of our efforts to grow Vermont’s economy, which include a workforce development strategy to attract new workers and meet the demographic challenges faced by a declining population,” Scott wrote.

Since the establishment of the federal refugee resettlement program four decades ago, more than 8,000 participants have moved to Vermont, according to the governor. The resettlement rate, however, has slowed in recent years.

Of the 100 refugees the state had hoped to welcome by the end of September, only 26 have arrived so far. Scott said in his letter that Vermont has the ability to accommodate many more.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said in a statement Thursday that expanding Vermont’s refugee program could benefit the state in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Governor Scott is committed to making Vermont a more welcoming place and growing our workforce,” Maulucci said. “The refugee program has already enhanced our communities in many ways, and as we rebuild and recover from the pandemic, welcoming more will help us build a stronger and more inclusive Vermont.”

In a statement Thursday, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., commended the governor’s initiative.

“Providing refuge to the persecuted and the oppressed is neither a Democratic or a Republican value — it’s part of our shared history and Vermonters have always done their part, and more,” Leahy said. “Just as Vermonters have welcomed those seeking safety, refugees have enriched communities across our state, both economically and culturally.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also expressed support, adding that he had met Thursday morning with the Refugee and Immigration Service Provider Network to discuss its work to support new Americans in the state.

“Vermont is ready to welcome more refugees to our cities and towns as new neighbors, coworkers and friends,” Welch said. “Thank you to Gov. Scott for making it clear that refugees are a vital part of our communities.”

The third member of Vermont’s congressional delegation, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not respond to a request for comment.

Under former President Donald Trump, Vermont saw a marked decrease in refugee resettlement. During the 2018 federal fiscal year, Vermont received more than 133 refugees — down from 235 a year earlier.

As governor, Scott has for several years supported strengthening the state’s refugee resettlement program, championing it during his 2018 reelection bid as a tool to turn around Vermont’s struggling rural economy and aging population. Earlier in his political career, though, Scott raised security concerns about resettling Syrians in Vermont.

Since taking office earlier this year, President Joe Biden has reversed Trump-era cutbacks in the refugee resettlement program, which resulted in a historic low of 15,000 admissions a year. The president has moved to admit 62,500 refugees by the end of September and another 125,000 the following year.

Refugees in Rutland?

In 2016, the State Department designated Rutland as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian refugees. The initiative — proposed by then-Mayor Christopher Louras and supported by the state’s congressional delegation — drew considerable local protest from a group called Rutland First. Others, organized under the banner of Rutland Welcomes, supported it.

Ultimately, after Trump took office and issued executive orders stalling immigration efforts, only 14 refugees moved to the city. Louras, meanwhile, was defeated in his 2017 reelection campaign by David Allaire, a longtime city alderman who opposed the plan, arguing that the process lacked transparency and input from the public.

When Governor Scott was asked whether he had heard back from the state department on Tuesday, March 23, he said: “We did receive a notice that they were very excited about us wanting to receive more refugees… Basically it was a fairly short acknowledgement. They said they would get back to us, so I think we’re on their radar.”

Scott then went on explaining his call for a significant increase of refugees to Vermont.

“We have our challenges here in Vermont and a number of different perspectives are demographics. We have an older population, a stagnant population — not a lot of diversity— and I believe that accepting more refugees would help us in every regard. So I’m looking forward to the possibly more refugees  coming into Vermont. And we’ll do our best to welcome them,” he said.

When asked if he is worried about political pushback, similar to Rutland Mayor Louras, Scott said: “There is political risk with almost everything that I say and do, but this is being done for the right reasons and I believe that. I feel strongly that Vermont needs more diversity and we need to do our part to welcome those from war-torn countries and bring them into Vermont as new citizens, new Americans … I just think we have a moral obligation to welcome them and make them part of Vermont. We certainly could use the help, too.”

Polly Mikula contributed to this report.

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