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


News & Issues October 2021


Will diversity revive Rutland?

After bitter 2016 debate, city slowly welcomes refugees, asylum seekers



Terese Black, president of Bridge to Rutland, and Ellen Green, the group’s executive director, stand next to a display of photographs of people seeking asylum in the United States. The organization helps to bring asylum seekers to Vermont and to support them while their applications are pending. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


This summer the local group Bridge to Rutland quietly welcomed two families from Central America who have settled in the area while applying for asylum in the United States.
Bridge to Rutland, a broad coalition that includes members of nine faith-based communities and four other area organizations, has raised cash and in-kind donations to cover medical care, household goods, food and more for the two families.

Under federal law and international standards, asylum seekers are those who wish to live here because they may face persecution and harm in their country of origin. But they have to follow strict rules while their bid for asylum is under review. For example, they are not allowed to work for pay until their application is granted.

That makes asylum seekers different from refugees, who are expected to work as soon as possible upon arrival in the United States.

Bridge to Rutland effectively acts as a local sponsor for asylum seekers, allowing them to live in the community rather than waiting in detention facilities while their applications are adjudicated.
Although the two new asylum-seeking families in Rutland can’t work, they do like to volunteer at the Rutland Free Library, the local Meals on Wheels program and at Spring Lake Ranch, a long-term therapeutic center, said Ellen Green, the executive director of Bridge to Rutland.
”We set up a calendar for them, and frankly their calendar is just as busy as mine is, which is wonderful,” Green said.

The two families arrived just a few months before the August collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan set off a humanitarian crisis there, with tens of thousands of Afghan refugees now bound for the United States. Vermont has offered to take in at least 100 of those refugees, and last month Rutland Mayor David Allaire expressed support for resettling some of the Afghan families in his city.

Many local business leaders say Rutland, which has been losing population steadily for 50 years, needs an influx of new blood to keep its economy going at a time when the local work force is shrinking and aging. Last month, the local chamber of commerce announced its support for refugee resettlement in the region, and even immigrants who are seeking asylum could eventually participate more fully in the local economy if their applications are approved.
But the new efforts to bring refugees and asylum seekers to Rutland are proceeding with caution, as supporters aim to avoid the controversy that engulfed an earlier refugee resettlement effort five years ago.


Chris Louras, who served five terms as mayor of Rutland, says he lost his 2017 re-election bid because of a backlash against his effort to resettle 25 to 30 families of Syrian refugees in the city. Joan K. Lentini photo


Chris Louras, who served five terms as mayor of Rutland, says he lost his 2017 re-election bid because of a backlash against his effort to resettle 25 to 30 families of Syrian refugees in the city. Joan K. Lentini photo


Political backlash
In 2016, then-mayor Chris Louras put forth a plan to resettle 25 to 30 families of Syrian refugees – perhaps 100 people in total – in Rutland. The plan set off a bitter debate as local opponents organized and packed a series of public meetings on the issue, casting the refugees as an economic burden and even a cultural threat.

Although many Rutlanders also organized in support of the resettlement effort, only two Syrian families made it to Rutland before then-President Donald Trump, in one of his first acts in office, cut off the flow of refugees from Syria to the United States. A few weeks later, city voters resoundingly rejected Louras’ re-election bid and instead chose Allaire, who had opposed the refugee resettlement plan, as Rutland’s new mayor.

Bridge to Rutland hasn’t seen any comparable opposition so far to its plans, although Green pointed out that its efforts are on a much smaller scale than those proposed for refugee resettlement. She thinks most people in Rutland backed the 2016 plan to welcome Syrian refugees, but she said the minority who opposed the plan garnered the most headlines both locally and nationally.

“Rutland is an awesome place, and we have a lot of support here,” Green said. “People are calling saying, ‘Hey, can we take Afghan refugees?’”

Rutlanders may soon get that chance. The Taliban takeover of Kabul in August set off a mass evacuation of at least 50,000 Afghans, and many more fled the country on their own. The state chapter of the U.S. Committee For Refugees and Immigrants, USCRI Vermont, has already applied to resettle 100 Afghan refugees in the state.

But Rutland’s reputation as a welcoming place for a diverse population has taken a few hits in the last several years. Along with the national news coverage of the backlash against the Syrian refugee resettlement, there have been news reports highlighting the experiences of several people of color who said they moved away from the area because of discrimination and harassment. The city also recently endured a bruising debate over whether to retire a school mascot name and imagery that critics said was insulting to Native Americans.

New wave of refugees

In March, Gov. Phil Scott wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department urging the federal government to settle more refugees in Vermont. A few months later, the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan created an urgent need to resettle the accompanying wave of Afghan evacuees.

In late August, USCRI submitted a formal request to resettle 100 Afghan refugees in Vermont. And last month, Allaire spoke in favor of the resettlement effort at a city Board of Alderman meeting. Many, though not all, of Rutland’s aldermen echoed the mayor’s support.

USCRI Vermont director Amila Merdzanovic, who attended that meeting, said she hoped some of the Afghans headed to Vermont eventually would be settled in Rutland by the agency.

But a week later, the online news site VTDigger quoted Tracy Dolan, the new director of the state refugee office, as saying the first wave of refugees would instead be resettled in Chittenden County, which includes the city of Burlington. Chittenden County, the state’s most populous, already includes Vermont’s three most diverse communities, according to 2020 census data.


A mayor’s evolution
Allaire did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story. But the mayor’s current openness to welcoming refugees to Rutland stands in sharp contrast to his public stance against the 2016 plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the city.

Back then, he was part of an effort of a majority of aldermen who opposed Louras’ plan to work with USCRI to welcome an initial group of 100 Syrians. He joined six aldermen in voting for a failed measure that called for a citywide referendum on whether to opt out of the refugee resettlement program. He also was the first to sign a letter to the U.S. State Department saying the city could not send a letter of support for the refugee resettlement plan.

The aldermen who opposed the 2016 plan complained that Louras hadn’t consulted them when he volunteered the city as a destination for Syrian refugees. In their letter to the State Department, the aldermen said they were “still learning about the program and still trying to identify and address concerns to which the lack of information and outreach has contributed.
“Therefore, as the governing entity of the city, we do not feel we are currently in a position to be able to provide a letter of support for the proposal to establish a new reception and placement program in Rutland,” they wrote.


Ibjid Meneses, who came to the United States from Mexico as an infant, opened a Mexican restaurant in downtown Rutland earlier this year. He says it’s inevitable that the city will become more diverse. Joan K. Lentini photo


Ibjid Meneses, who came to the United States from Mexico as an infant, opened a Mexican restaurant in downtown Rutland earlier this year. He says it’s inevitable that the city will become more diverse. Joan K. Lentini photo

In March 2017, soon after the Trump administration halted the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States, Allaire defeated Louras as mayor. He has since won re-election twice.
In his campaign for a third term earlier this year, Allaire was asked at a February candidate forum about the importance of Rutland being perceived as a diverse community -- and what the city might need to do to be a welcoming community. Allaire said that Rutland already was a welcoming community, and he referenced “two or three families” from Syria who settled in the Rutland area as a result of the 2016 effort.

“You wouldn’t even know they were here,” Allaire said. “They are now part of the community. They are engaged, they are productive, they are supportive, and that’s what we are all about, and that’s what we’ve always been about. And I think we will continue to be that way.”

But Rutland First, a group that emerged to oppose the 2016 refugee resettlement, still maintains a Facebook page that includes right-wing videos and news reports that purport to show threats posed by immigration of people of Muslim faith. The organization’s Facebook page has largely been quiet since Rutland’s municipal elections in March, though before that it posted twice to endorse Allaire for re-election.

Its last visible post, dated March 30, takes issue with the governor’s letter to the State Department inviting refugee resettlement. The post reads: “Governor Phil Scott how and why do you think it’s ok to ask the federal government for more refugees when Vermont has a housing crisis?? Stop trying to bring more people that will add to the tax burden!!”


Lingering rifts
Louras, who had served five terms as mayor, still blames his resounding loss to Allaire, whom he had easily defeated in two previous races, on an anti-refugee backlash among Rutland voters.
“I attribute it entirely to the refugee resettlement debate,” he said.

Other assessments at the time suggested that, although the refugee controversy was significant, there were other issues – including an effort by Louras to restructure the city fire department – that contributed to his defeat. A post-election editorial in the local daily newspaper, the Rutland Herald, characterized the loss as a result of “Louras fatigue.”

Some also claimed Louras mishandled the refugee issue in ways that raised the ire of voters who otherwise weren’t inclined toward nativism.

Throughout the debate over the resettlement plan, several aldermen said they took issue with the way that Louras initially worked mostly in secret with resettlement organizations and federal officials to craft a plan for bringing Syrian refugees to Rutland. These aldermen said they weren’t opposed to welcoming refugees per se but were put off because Louras didn’t seek their input – or because they hadn’t been given a chance to fully understand the resettlement process.
Louras, however, still doesn’t buy those arguments. He said that too often elected officials hide behind arguments of process when they don’t want to take a stance that might be unpopular with a significant chunk of voters. He said he strongly believes the way he communicated about the plan was not the reason there was so much backlash to refugee resettlement in Rutland.
“Upon reflection, and I have reflected a great length about this, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently that would have reflected in a different outcome,” he said.
Louras said the strong feelings that arose during the debate have not fully dissipated.
“Up until Covid, when I could hide behind the mask, I would still get the stink eye at the grocery store, and people would come up to me, four years later, and, let’s say, inartfully voice their opinion,” Louras said.

He made it clear he’s unfazed by these critics.
“I did the right thing,” Louras said. “I don’t give two holy hells about them.”


In search of diversity
Although Louras believes strong anti-immigrant sentiment cost him his job as mayor, others say Rutland remains a welcoming city overall.

Mike Khalil, a Syrian-American of Kurdish descent, was a vocal proponent of the 2016 plan to welcome displaced Syrians. Khalil, a real estate broker who has lived in Rutland for more than two decades, said he considers Rutlanders to be good people. He said some of the concern from opponents was simply about how an influx of people might change the community.
After speaking with some of the Syrians who made it to Rutland before the resettlement effort ended, Khalil said he now believes that Rutland’s relative geographic isolation and lack of residents who practice Islam may have made it a difficult place for a larger group of Syrians to settle.

“I thought it was going to be very hard for them to be here, because there is no community for them here,” he said.

But this may be the Catch-22 of any effort to resettle refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants in Rutland or other, more rural parts of Vermont. The state is tied with West Virginia as the second least diverse state, according to the U.S Census Bureau’s diversity index.
With the first wave of Afghan refugees headed to Chittenden County, which already is demographically more diverse than the rest of Vermont, how can Rutland, a geographically isolated city that isn’t perceived as diverse, become a welcoming community for immigrants?
For Rutland to build and maintain a welcoming reputation, it may have to attract and retain more immigrants and people of color like Ibjid Meneses, the owner of the downtown restaurant Dos Eses Delicious Tamales.

Meneses came to the United States from Mexico as an infant and lived much of his life in Chicago. He has no real memory of his country of birth. He first came to Rutland a couple of years ago at the request of his church to do missionary work.
As part of a church fund-raiser, he learned how to make tamales, and they proved so popular that he decided to open a restaurant dedicated to Mexican street food. The restaurant opened in June.
Meneses said he hopes to settle in Rutland for the long term and have success with his restaurant, and he has interacted with many welcoming Rutlanders. But he said he also has been warned to tone down certain behavior because he is Hispanic.

“They hold minorities to different standards because we’re minorities,” Meneses said, adding that Vermont “is the first state that has made me feel like a foreigner.”
Meneses has lived in several other states, and he says that gives him some perspective on the demographic changes that eventually will come to Rutland.

“Regardless of if people want to or not, we’re going to have more people from different backgrounds moving into the city,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”


Curbing bias, bigotry
Meneses is not the only person of color to feel like an outsider in Rutland. In January, an online special report by The GroundTruth Project, a national organization that supports young journalists, highlighted the stories of three women of color who moved out of Rutland or the nearby region because of race-based harassment or threats.

The report also profiled a fourth woman, Lisa Ryan, an adjunct law professor and the first person of color to serve in Rutland’s city government. Ryan said she had no plans to move, but acknowledged that living in Rutland and serving the community has been challenging. As an alderman, she said she faced harassment and fierce resistance when she called for training on implicit bias.

“It was eight months of pure hell,” she said in the GroundTruth report. “I had community members bullying me, I had older men bullying me and harassing me, I had people I don’t even know saying things to me. All because I wanted this training to happen for everybody.”

Last year, Rutland also endured a lengthy, heated debate about whether to change the name of its school sports teams from the Raiders to the Ravens -- and to retire the Native American imagery that was used with the Raider name. The school board ultimately voted to retire the Raider name.

Some board members faced threats and harassment because of their stance on the name change, and their decision also provoked a backlash at the ballot box, with voters electing a slate of candidates that gave opponents of the name change a nominal majority on the board. The board hasn’t moved to reverse the change, however.

Board member Alison Notte, who supported changing the team name, said she sees a significant overlap between those who opposed the change and those who opposed to refugee resettlement in Rutland. Although she stressed that Rutland is a welcoming community, she said there is a vocal minority who oppose efforts to attract immigrants to the city.

“Part of the problem is that some people can’t identify with marginalized populations and possibly see their struggles,” she said.

Notte said there are several factors that might make the next refugee resettlement effort more successful than the last, including that displaced Afghans are seen as American allies, that Allaire is supportive of having some refugees come to Rutland, and that more people are becoming aware of the demographic challenges that Rutland faces.

“Rutland‘s population is shrinking, and the economic need is definitely making some realize the need for diversity within our community,” she said.


A need for new blood?
In 2016, Louras framed his plan for refugee resettlement as an economic opportunity for Rutland. That view is backed by many studies that have shown immigration can be a net gain for a local economy.

But opponents ridiculed that argument and instead claimed an influx of refugees would add to the city’s economic stresses.

Although Louras’ view didn’t resonate with enough voters in 2017, the idea that immigrants would benefit the local economy has gained traction over the past four years as more and more local businesses scramble to fill job vacancies.

Lori Smith, executive director of the nonpartisan Vermont Futures Project, has been watching demographic trends and mapping out opportunities for economic growth for the state. Rutland has all the infrastructure needed to successfully welcome a wave of new immigrants, she said, and Vermont will need to diversify its demographics to compete in the future.

“We’re a state that’s 94 percent white,” Smith said. “That data point alone will, and probably could, dictate our future economic growth.”

Last month, the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region put out a statement backing refugee resettlement in the region. The business coalition said new immigrants are needed to help supplement a talented but rapidly aging work force. The chamber pledged to help facilitate employment opportunities and training for immigrants arriving in the region.

But some city officials are still skeptical of the economic benefits of welcoming immigrants.
Tom DePoy, a Rutland alderman who opposed the 2016 refugee resettlement effort, already has raised pointed questions about the new push to welcome Afghan refugees. His concerns with refugee resettlement extend far beyond issues of process.

In an interview, DePoy expressed concern that the Syrian immigrants who were destined for Rutland in 2016 might have attempted to impose religious laws on the community.
DePoy made it clear he disagrees strongly with the local chamber’s stance. He said decreased regulation and a curtailing of enhanced unemployment programs would do more to help spur Vermont’s economic growth.

There aren’t enough jobs to go around in Rutland as it is, DePoy said. Welcoming new immigrants in the hope that they’ll spur economic growth may be like putting the cart before the horse, he suggested.

“That is the problem in this town,” DePoy said. “We have people like that in those positions who say fool stuff like that.”

DePoy, who owns a cleaning business, acknowledged that it has been tougher than usual recently for him to fill open positions. He said that’s partly because the Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed the movement of foreign workers who typically help to staff area ski resorts. Because of that, he explained, some Rutland residents whom he had hired in the past have now opted to work at the ski resorts.

“Put Covid aside, I think we have a very good work force, because you are able to bring Brazilians to the ski area, and that would free up a lot more local labor,” he said.