A Vermont Town In The Eye Of The Refugee Resettlement Storm

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on January 26, 2017 6:15 pm

After a presidential campaign that divided the country on immigration, some of the most fervent anti-refugee advocates say their views and agenda have now moved into the mainstream under President Donald Trump. His appointments, including top White House advisers and his nominee for attorney general, are powerful allies who support suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program — the largest in the world — or an outright ban on accepting refugees from "terror-prone" countries.

From now on, "I think you are going to see a very different attitude to the whole program and the whole problem," says Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy and a leading anti-immigration advocate.

In Barack Obama's Washington, Gaffney — described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "one of America's most notorious Islamophobes, gripped by paranoid fantasies about Muslims destroying the West from within" — was considered on the fringe of the refugee debate. But no longer.

"I would put the work we do up against anybody who is in the mainstream," Gaffney says. He bristles about charges that he is Islamophobic, saying, "The Southern Poverty Law Center is being used to suppress people who are telling the truth."

A book rack outside Gaffney's office displays more than a dozen of his center's publications and pamphlets, with titles like Shariah, the Threat to America and Refugee Resettlement and the Hijra to America, claiming to document Muslim colonization of America. See No Shariah argues that the Muslim Brotherhood has gained undue influence over American policy makers, including the White House, FBI and Justice Department.

These publications supply the talking points for a national anti-immigrant and anti-refugee campaign.

'Do The Right Thing'

One battleground is in Rutland, Vt., where some 25 Syrian refugee families are on track to resettle this year. The first two Syrian families arrived earlier this month. The controversy surrounding their resettlement has attracted widespread domestic coverage and reporters from Denmark and Canada.

Rutland became a microcosm of the national debate after Mayor Christopher Louras, the grandson of Greek immigrants to Rutland, announced in April that his town would become a host community for refugees. The five-term mayor says he saw an opportunity to "do the right thing" and rebuild the community, which he describes as "96 percent white and very much trending older."

The town of nearly 16,000 has lost residents since 2000, and seems unable to attract new jobs or young people. An opioid crisis has crippled some neighborhoods. Louras says Syrian refugees would be a boost for the aging town, just as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe boosted Rutland's fortunes a century ago.

But there is opposition, and not just locally.

"The anti-refugee people heard about it and they came to stir the pot. It was nasty and we are sorry it got so ugly," says Lavinia Limon, who heads the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, one of nine private agencies contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees.

"This is a definitely a national campaign," she says, referring to the wave of anti-refugee activists who came to Rutland. "Smaller towns seem to be their target."

Rutland has also attracted the attention of the influential conservative website Refugee Resettlement Watch. The site claims 6 million readers and its editor, a Maryland woman named Ann Corcoran, says resettlement of refugees is a form of "infiltration" and is "seeding" the country for the promotion of Islamic law, or sharia. Several state legislatures are considering bills to ban sharia. The whole issue is "spurious," Limon emphasizes, because elected lawmakers, not refugees, write the laws.

'Rutland First'

A month after Rutland's mayor announced the town would welcome Syrian refugees, the "Rutland First" group appeared on Facebook. The group's aims were contained in a bold, three-word manifesto: "Rutland before Refugees."

Timothy Cook, a Rutland physician and one of the group's founders, contests the mayor's view that Syrian refugees can remedy the town's economic woes.

"It seems a little delusional," he says as he stands in front of his medical office on a cold and foggy January night and points out businesses long closed along Rte. 7, a major thoroughfare in town.

In May, soon after the mayor's announcement, Cook invited James Simpson, a national anti-immigrant and -refugee activist, to speak at the local library.

Simpson, a former analyst for the White House Office of Management and Budget, spoke to a full house at the library in an event livestreamed by Rutland's public access channel.

His book, Red Green Axis: Refugees, Immigration and the Agenda to Erase America, charges that the "progressive left and Muslim extremists" aim to undermine and ultimately abolish the U.S. Constitution through Muslim resettlement and immigration. He calls the vetting of refugees and immigrants by U.S. security agencies a "sham."

"I am not Islamophobic," Simpson insists. "I am concerned about national security and the costs of the [refugee] program. I'm concerned about the secrecy and the unilateral way it's imposed on communities."

Louras — who says there was nothing secret or imposed about Rutland's application to host refugees — says the conversation in Rutland changed after Simpson's visit. The language got rougher, more xenophobic. "It certainly provided some false narratives and alternative facts that some people here locally glommed onto to justify their own positions."

But he also says the debate in Rutland was "reflective of the national mood and the national level of discourse that Donald J. [Trump] was peddling."

'Rutland Welcomes'

The roughness, for now, has somewhat abated. When refugees arrive in Rutland, they are likely to note signs around town featuring a white heart pierced by a thin black arrow. It is the symbol for "Rutland Welcomes," a pro-refugee group with hundreds of volunteers who have pledged to help in any way they can and organized as soon as the mayor announced that refugees would arrive.

Since the State Department approved the arrivals in September, volunteer committees have filled warehouses with donated household goods, clothing and kitchen supplies. They organized school registrations for the children and lined up translators for the adults. Recently, they set up Arabic classes taught once a week by linguists from nearby Middlebury College.

"I see no reason to believe that they won't be successful, "says Louras. "They want to integrate into the workforce and that's the story of our community. That's what the southern and eastern Europeans did 100 years ago. "

Tim Cook, the local physician, sees these newcomers and thinks about Rutland's past. His family arrived here more than 200 years ago. He acknowledges immigrants shaped Rutland for good. But this time, he believes it's different.

"We have a community that is steeped in Euro-centric culture," he says. "The idea of having a bizarre chess game where you are just going to drop people here, I have a problem with that."

For now, though, Cook accepts that Syrian refugees will become part of the community. "I will do everything I can to help them succeed," he tells me a week after the first families arrived. "I'll offer medical care. I will do whatever I can do."

He knows his position will surprise those who've followed his vocal opposition, but says those who are surprised should note New England culture. "That," he says, "is what Vermonters do."

But he's still hoping the new president will abolish the refugee program before more Syrians arrive.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When a Vermont mayor's sought to make his town a home for Syrians fleeing their country's war, he drew opposition from national groups that say Syrian refugees could be dangerous. Well, those opponents have gained traction under President Trump. This week, he told ABC News he would make deep cuts in the U.S. refugee program.

Trump's message is reverberating in little Rutland, Vt. It has just received two Syrian families, and they might be the last. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Usually we'd start a story like this on the streets of Rutland, and we'll get there in a moment. We start this story in Washington at the offices of the Center for Security Policy to meet director Frank Gaffney. He's published books and policy papers that supply some of the talking points for a national anti-refugee campaign and was cited by Donald Trump when he was a candidate. Here's Gaffney.

FRANK GAFFNEY: I think you are going to see a very different attitude towards the whole program, the whole problem.

AMOS: He's talking about refugees, Muslim refugees.

GAFFNEY: They have to share our values.

AMOS: Gaffney insists many Muslims who come here want to impose Islamic law or Sharia in America, views that others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, describe as paranoid fantasies. Gaffney is on the group's hate watch list.

What do you say when they say, you are a hater; you are Islamophobe?

GAFFNEY: I say the Southern Poverty Law Center is being used to suppress people who are telling the truth. We're simply going to be saying the same things we've always been saying. It's just that they're going to, at this point in the dynamic, be policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN)

AMOS: And now to Rutland, Vt. I'm standing in front of the fire station where that foghorn goes off every night at 10 minutes to 9. It's a signature of the city, and so are the darkened storefronts here and the light traffic. It's where Frank Gaffney's views played out locally as this town divided over resettling 25 Syrian refugee families.

As word spread that President Trump was going to scale back the refugee program, something that Frank Gaffney had promoted, it was bad news for Rutland's mayor, Christopher Louras.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Say this again.

CHRISTOPHER LOURAS: We are done.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

LOURAS: (Unintelligible). It's done.

AMOS: At a local cafe, the mayor explains to his supporters that the two Syrian families that have arrived are probably the last. Sandy Gartner breaks down in tears.

SANDY GARTNER: There are some of us want them.

AMOS: She was part of a volunteer group - Rutland Welcomes - that made elaborate plans to assimilate the 25 families into this blue-collar town. The mayor is devastated, too.

LOURAS: Better they heard it from me than read about it in the newspaper.

AMOS: People were crying.

LOURAS: People should be crying for humanity's sake, for the community's sake.

AMOS: Louras says he wanted Rutland to host the Syrians to do the right thing, but he also wanted newcomers to boost a community that's rapidly losing population and needs workers. Rutland was built by immigrants a hundred years ago. Now Syrians could inject new energy.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...

AMOS: And here's where the national campaign comes back in the picture. At Rutland's library, national anti-refugee activists came to speak. One was James Simpson. His book "The Red-Green Axis" charges that the American left and Muslim extremists are working together to undermine America. It's the same message he delivers on a radio show run by Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy.

JAMES SIMPSON: And it's a duty of Muslims according to the Koran to settle, populate and take over the places that they immigrate to.

AMOS: The man who invited Simpson to speak here is Dr. Tim Cook. I meet him at his medical clinic. He says he agrees with Simpson's message that Muslim newcomers are different than previous immigrants.

TIM COOK: We have a community that is steeped in 250 years of Eurocentric culture.

AMOS: He points to a vacant storefront outside his clinic. He knows Rutland needs an economic boost but declares refugees are not the answer.

COOK: It just seems - I mean I'm trying to be polite about this. But it seems a little delusional.

AMOS: In the end, Rutland didn't say no to Syrian resettlement, but President Trump seems poised to close that door. Back at Rutland's Speakeasy Cafe, Peg Andrews, a former member of Vermont's legislature, says the fight isn't over.

PEG ANDREWS: I think there are a lot of people who really feel very strongly that this is the right thing for us do and it's the right thing for the community.

AMOS: For now, she and others in Rutland are trying to find a way to keep the refugees coming. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Rutland, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER SONG, "FANTINO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.