[guest post by Dana]
In the small Vermont city of Rutland (pop. 15,824 ), Mayor Christopher Louras is using an interesting, if not familiar argument to justify a plan to resettle 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in his town throughout this new year. The plan was originally hatched in 2015, right after the terrorist attack in Paris.
The plan’s fiercest advocate has been the mayor of Rutland, Christopher Louras, who has cited not the moral argument for resettling refugees, but an economic one: This shrinking city, long removed from its heyday as a marble producer and regional railroad hub, needs every new resident it can get. Syrian refugees, he has said, are an opportunity.
“Rutland’s demographic condition right now is not just one of a declining population, but it’s also a graying population,” said Mr. Louras, who became the mayor about 10 years ago as a Republican, but has since become an independent. “We need people,” he added.
According to local associate professor of Economics, Art Woolf, the result of an aging population and lower birth rates results in a lack of workers:
“I think we’re right on the beginning of the cusp of serious, serious labor problems,” said Mr. Woolf, who added that the state’s unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, was a sign of more trouble to come. “We’re low because there’s nobody available to work.”
Here is a look at the downturn in numbers:
Rutland County, here in the center of the state, which has lost residents since 2000. The city of Rutland has 15,824 residents, according to an estimate by the United States Census Bureau, which said the city had lost 4 percent of its population since 2010. The highest population for Rutland recorded by the Census Bureau was 19,293, in 1970.
It is a striking community, lately hobbled by isolation: There are mountains on the horizon, but the city is an hour from major highways. Its status as a railroad hub and a marble powerhouse is long gone, and recent decades have seen the loss of major factory employers.
In addition, the Census Bureau reports that in 2015, the rate of Rutland city residents living below the poverty line was 17%, and Rutland is also struggling with a serious heroin problem among its young people.
However, not all residents are supportive of the plan. Along with a group of residents actively working to prepare for refugees, there is another group, Rutland First, which is working to block, or at least delay, the decision:
We do not think this decision should be based on feelings of kindness. We are aware of burdens experienced by some communities who have accepted refugess as well as difficulties of those resettled. We think we must understand facts that have not been forthcoming and must consider the consequences of refugee resttlement in our City. Rutland has numerous unaddressed problems. We are asking the City of Rutland to hold a public vote on whether to:
A – Go forward with the Mayor’s proposed refugee resettlement beginning in October 2016
B – Decline the opportunity for resettlement for the present time
Until city officials and the public feel assured of the vetting of refugees and are clearly informed of the process, the economic impact on Rutland and surrounding communities, details of the role of the contractor placing refugees here, the obligations the contractor has or does not have to the City, and the financial and legal responsibilities left to Rutland after the contractor completes its task.
Member of the Rutland First group, Timothy Cook, who is also a doctor and an Army Reserve colonel, pointed to the economic impact:
We’re kind of stuck out here, with our level of economic depression, with our level of crime and drug issues.
We’re the ones who are gonna have to foot the bill for this.
Mayor Louras’ justification for the resettlement of refugees echoes that of Prime Minister Angela Merkel, when she too was faced with an aging population and decreased birth rate. Merkel also saw the resettling of refugees and asylum seekers in Germany as both a humanitarian effort, and as a way to fill the country’s work gap.
Aside from the most obvious problem of a Western country opening its doors to citizens from specific regions in the world, Germany has also been faced with the problem that the vast majority of those admitted into the country have been uneducated and low-skilled workers at best. Thus they are unable to fill the vacant skilled positions. (Note: On average, an eighth-grader in pre-war Syria had a similar level to a third-grade student in Germany, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).)
Even more problematic has been a serious work ethic lacking in some of Germany’s able-bodied, male refugees:
According to mayor Bernd Pohlers of the eastern town of Saxony Waldenburg, the asylum seekers refused to accept the work that was offered to them after they arrived in the country.
The local council spent £600 arranging for the men to have uniforms but were stunned when they were told they would not complete it because they were “guests of Angela Merkel”.
While asylum seekers are not allowed to work under immigration rules within the EU, they are allowed to do voluntary work.
However officials in the district of Zwickau came up with a plan to help encourage those without employment to get back to work and to help them become more accepted within the local community.
In order to do this they created voluntary jobs which included a nominal payment of £18 for 20 hours work.
But all of the male residents of the local refugee accommodation who initially agreed to get involved in the charitable activities quit after discovering there was a minimum wage £7.30 (€8.50) in Germany.
The men had been picked up and offered transportation from their paid-for housing where they are also given food and then dropped home.
Mayor Pohlers said: “It was subsequently argued by these people that they are guests of Mrs. Merkel and guests do not have to work.
“Furthermore, they were of the opinion that there is a minimum wage (€8.50) in Germany, and that this had to be paid by the City Waldenburg.”
Despite attempts at mediation the asylum seekers refused to return to work.
As opponents to the Rutland plan, and others, have pointed out, it’s not simply a matter of helping those in need, or a matter of needing reassurances that the vetting is solid, but this plan would result in the merging of intensely different cultures. And that is a very serious matter, and one fraught with obvious risks and complications.
Which leads to this: Last month, Vermont Public Radio quoted Mayor Louras as saying:
My response to people who say Rutland’s not ready for this type of thing is: Then when? And how has this been working out for us? Not too well. Our population has continued to decline, and we need an infusion of new blood and new culture.