Editorial: Rutland’s strife over refugee status is every town’s concern
In Rutland, the struggles that town and city have gone through in its reckoning to become a refugee resettlement site provide important lessons other Vermont communities seeking similar refugee status should consider.
For starters, Vermont residents should know the national refugee resettlement program is operated under an arm of the U.S. State Department. The State Department works with contractors to place refugees throughout the nation; most states have subcontractors who work for those various contractors. Because those contractors are private firms, and the contracts they sign with states are competitive in nature, much of that information is proprietary—that is, confidential between the parties involved. That’s not shady or purposely vague to hide some disturbing information; rather it is just a standard business practice.
Yet, that very practice has been the root of much suspicion and fear-mongering in the Rutland community; and not without reason.
The Rutland senatorial delegation, made up of Republicans Kevin Mullin, Brian Collamore and Peg Flory, for example, wrote a letter to the State Department and Vermont’s congressional delegation at the end of August asking six, mostly benign, questions:
• What’s the definition of “local governance” versus “governing entity.” This was the most partisan question, which sought to shed light on whether the mayor had the authority to act independent of the board of aldermen. (The city attorney ruled in a 26-page decision made public on Monday that Mayor Chris Louras acted within his authority.)
• What, exactly, is the application form, and how many pages is it? (Which is to understand what questions the city provided to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP), the state’s only authorized refugee resettlement subcontractor, to be considered a host city. The VRRP has provided only three pages of the city’s application and critics are suspicious there are other pages that have not been shared publicly.)
• Is the city’s application a public document, and if not, why not. (Because it’s a contract, it is likely not a public document.) The Senate delegation also asked the VRRP to provide them “with a blank application form so that we can see what type of information it seeks?”
• And the delegation asked several other questions every host community would want to know: What are the differences between requirements for immigrants vs. refugees; that is, are communities required to offer services to only one, neither or both (for example, ELL, the English Language Learners program)? Are there differences in their ability to apply for citizenship? Are there differences regarding possible deportation? Are there differences in their ability to have family members come to the U.S.? Is there federal financial assistance to the state or community to assist in programs/housing/jobs/education for the refugees and, if so, for how long?
Surprisingly, not all of the answers to those questions have been as forthright as one might think is possible; and in today’s political climate, where fear of terrorism seems to seep into every political crevice, those gaps in transparency can undermine what could otherwise be good intentions.
Proponents of having Rutland be a refugee resettlement community say that most of those questions have been addressed numerous times since Mayor Louras nominated the city for refugee status back in April. And certainly much of this information is not hidden. Vermont’s refugee resettlement program has been ongoing for more than 20 years and has resettled refugees from dozens of countries throughout Chittenden County with great success. If Rutland critics of the program want to learn the pros and cons of the program, just ask Colchester, Winooski or Burlington officials.
But even the slightest gap in full disclosure will prompt some critics to seek flaws in the program. Rutland opponents found residents in Manchester, N.H., for example, who were eager to share problems with that city’s refugee resettlement program (run by the same parent contractor but not the same subcontractor). But if that is looking at the glass half-empty, proponents should also accept that such a perspective is not done with ill intent as much as it is with a cautionary tale that not all programs are without their problems, and that the community is best served by learning all it can before making a commitment.
Proponents should also accept that it is reasonable to wonder why a blank application form has not been provided? Is that really proprietary and is there no way to get around that? And why make a town research obvious questions that should be on an initial handout to any inquiring community? Why isn’t that the obligation of the VRRP, as dictated by the state agency overseeing the refugee resettlement program?
At this point in the Rutland controversy, what seems obvious is this:
• Inviting Syrian refugees into any community in today’s political environment will prompt legitimate concerns by residents of the host community. Because of that underlying fear, public transparency is essential.
• The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program is not a typical subcontractor for the state. Its decisions and its performance in carrying out the program impact whole communities. To that degree, the state should consider greater transparency within the contracts VRRP makes with host communities.
The benefits of accepting refugees into our state and our communities are many—economic and cultural, as well as humanitarian. The majority on Rutland’s board of aldermen accepts that premise. Rutland’s senatorial delegation also is on the record supporting Rutland’s application as a refugee site. The larger of two community groups, Rutland Welcomes, has formed over 20 community committees to welcome the refugees. Another community group, Rutland First, has been opposed to the process and its members are skeptical of the outcomes, yet they too must be convinced of the program’s benefits if the community effort is to succeed.
But what is so obviously needed, and for the benefit of all other communities that might consider being a host community, is a more transparent application process that answers the most questions any community will have. To that end, the state should work with the subcontractor to make sure that is the outcome of Rutland’s five-month ordeal; but first, it should help Rutland’s senators find the answers they seek and leave it in their court to reassure Rutland residents that its concerns have been heard and addressed.
Angelo S. Lynn