- Chris Louras, the former mayor of Rutland, Vermont, had a plan to bring 25 Syrian refugee families to town.
- Many residents criticized Louras over what they saw as the ‘secrecy’ in which the plan was carried out.
- The issue divided the town into two camps, with both sides furious with the other. A recent town meeting devolved into insults and shouting.
- Louras lost his reelection bid, and only three of the 25 families made it to Rutland.
The plan was supposed to revitalize the economy of a sleepy Vermont town, and give its small workforce a much-needed boost. It seemed like a win-win. But when Rutland’s five-term mayor Chris Louras announced in April 2016 that 25 refugee families would be coming to the struggling postindustrial town, he awoke fear and vitriol that eventually cost him his job.
This was around the time Donald Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination, proposed national bans on refugees and immigrants from certain majority-Muslim countries. Rutland became a referendum on the nation’s willingness to welcome displaced people from around the world.
Some in the town formed a group called “Rutland Welcomes,” a volunteer group that planned to find housing, transportation, and jobs for prospective refugees, and even gave the few who arrived baskets of fruit and vegetables.
Those against the plan formed “Rutland First,” a loose-knit coalition of residents whose opinions ranged from skepticism at whether Rutland could bear the costs of resettling the refugees to outright hostility and fear-mongering.
Then, on March 6, came the mayoral election.
Louras, an Army veteran who had been a popular and uncontroversial mayor for a decade, was ousted by alderman David Allaire, who had lost to Louras in two previous elections. Allaire clobbered Louras, centering his campaign on opposition to the plan, which he criticized for freezing out the board of aldermen and Rutland residents.
The election was “absolutely” a referendum on refugees, Jennie Gartner, a local high-school history teacher and a representative of Rutland Welcomes, told Business Insider.
Allaire’s election win, combined with Trump’s travel ban barring refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq and Syria, all but decided the issue.
Only three refugee families — two Syrian and one Iraqi — have been resettled so far.
An American town like any other
In 2015, Louras had an idea to fix the town’s “unhealthily low unemployment rate.”
Rutland was shedding population. Since the 1970s, 16% of its people have moved away, leaving homes empty and nearby businesses looking for workers.
“That’s the story of many small postindustrial cities that have a declining population and a graying population,” Louras told Business Insider.
Louras spotted an opportunity to get Rutland involved in the US’s newly announced plan to resettle thousands of refugees from the Middle East. Rutland’s businesses have tons of open, entry-level jobs, and the town has cheap, vacant housing stock for 3,000 additional residents, according to Louras, who thought refugees would be perfect candidates to solve some of the town’s problems.
While only a few refugees made it to town before Louras was ousted, those who did confirmed Louras’ intuition, he says. One refugee, who arrived in January, secured a full-time job at The Bakery, a popular local café, within weeks. He now splits his time between an early-morning baking shift and English-language classes, Louras said.
What Louras didn’t count on was that Rutland’s debate would get sucked into a larger divide stretching across the country.
Rolling out the unwelcome mat
A month after Louras presented his plan, the town, much of it divided between Rutland Welcomes and Rutland First, began to unravel.
Some accused Louras of hatching the plan in secret.
Tim Cook, one of the founders of Rutland First and an Iraq War veteran, alleged that Louras submitted a State Department application for refugees six months before the April announcement. Breitbart, the far-right website, picked up the story. Small Rutland was becoming big news.
“The national story out there is that we’re hateful and biased, and that’s bulls—,” Wendy Wilton, a member of Rutland First, said. “We just wanted to know what was in that application.”
Like other critics, she accused Louras of lying about the plan, saying that he told the town he intended to resettle only 100 refugees but that his actual plans were to bring 100 a year. According to Wilton, the town aldermen requested a copy of the refugee application from the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) twice, and the nonprofit was uncooperative.
“If this was the most wonderful thing in the world, why wouldn’t you want to cooperate with the local governing body?” said Wilton, who, like Cook, added that she wasn’t opposed to resettling a few refugees, just not 100.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Rutland Welcomes was holding regular meetings at a Unitarian Church with hundreds of residents forming committees to push the resettlement process along, arrange English tutors, and gather donations of household goods and clothing.
Then criticism of Rutland Welcomes spread across the town.
Gartner, the high-school history teacher and a member of Rutland Welcomes, says she and others were criticized online by people associated with Rutland First for teaching her class about Islam, which is part of the state curriculum.
Gartner, Louras, and others in favor of resettlement have said that very few of those against the resettlement actually care about the secrecy of “the process,” seeing it as a cover for fear. The vast majority of Rutland First, she says, is people who “were afraid of Muslims, afraid of people from other countries,” she said. If Louras was planning on bringing a new tech firm to Rutland, people wouldn’t criticize the way the decision came about, she added.
At a board of aldermen meeting last year, a number of anti-refugee aldermen publicly lashed out at representatives from the USCRI, who were present. Members of the public, some of whom had threatened violence against the USCRI representatives, were permitted to lob personal attacks from the microphone. Policemen were called into the meeting to protect the USCRI representatives because of specific, personal threats. Christopher Ettori, a pro-refugee town alderman, told Business Insider the meeting was a “debacle.”
Many Rutlanders have said that much of the criticism falls on Louras, who they say did little to allay the concerns and anger of those against the plan. Ettori said that Louras didn’t have “a real dialogue with people” and failed to arrange speakers or panels to educate residents why the plan would benefit the town and not sacrifice security.
Instead, Meg Hansen, a columnist for the Rutland Herald, wrote in March, Louras “chose to malign his critics as racist.”
For his part, Louras seemed to have little patience for Rutland First’s objections.
Cook, the local doctor, maintained that he wanted to see the refugees succeed — and has even offered his services as a physician — but says he wants them to succeed by “Americanizing” themselves.
“Getting them a baseball bat, and Keystone beer by the suitcase, whatever it takes,” Cook said. “You succeed in this country by accepting the fact that there is such a thing as American culture, and by practicing it.”
The national conversation
Things came to a head in the run-up to this year’s election in March. Days after Trump was sworn into office in January, he signed the executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. While his base loved it, protests broke out in cities and at airports across the country.
Rutland’s mayoral election soon became a microcosm of the national debate about immigration and refugees, according to Louras, who said residents used language that echoed the rhetoric of the Trump campaign.
Trump “definitely influenced what happened here,” said Gartner, who added that the administration’s position on refugees gave Rutland First cover to “feel pretty safe in their fear.”
As a result, Louras says, the Rutland First side wasn’t willing to listen to the pro-resettlement side’s explanations for why the refugees would be a boost to the town’s economy.
“The noise around the irrational concerns didn’t allow a lot of those rational people to listen to the facts,” Louras said.
At the same time, David Allaire, Louras’ opponent, ran his campaign on a message criticizing the mayor’s handling of the refugee issue and called for “healing the divide” in the community. The refugee issue, combined with fury over Louras’ unrelated attempt to reform the fire department, led to a landslide victory for Allaire.
“This is what sunk him, from my perspective,” Gartner said of the refugee issue. “This is what Louras had to fall on his sword for.”
Allaire declined requests for an interview.
In the months that followed, Allaire has done little publicly to bring the town together, alderman Ettori said. He added that he doesn’t expect the new mayor to lead “some sort of reconciliation.”
In some ways, Allaire is repeating Louras’ mistakes. While no new refugees are expected in 2017, Allaire has met with the USCRI and the State Department to discuss bringing 100 more refugees to the city in 2018, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting. Publicly, Allaire has said that he is deferring to the federal government on the refugee issue, according to Ettori.
And the issue, in some ways, is still raw.
Those that championed the resettlement, like Hunter Berryhill, a high-school English teacher in town, say that as the refugees who did make it are successful (there were three families total). He and others hope the “false stereotypes start to crumble.”
Sana Mustafa, a Syrian student who arrived in the US in 2013 and visited Rutland in June, said that she too thinks that refugees suffer from stereotypes.
“There’s no name. There are no faces. There are only numbers, and we’re always associated with guns and terrorists,” said Mustafa. “When people see me, they see me as a civilized, normal person … and that’s how we all look.”
Business Insider made several attempts to speak with the refugees who have settled in Rutland but was told by USCRI officials that interviews weren’t a good idea for the refugees’ safety, given the tense situation.
Louras, who is in regular contact with the families, said they are “faring very well.”
Still, he struggles, he says, with what went wrong with the plan.
“If I had the silver bullet, I’d still be in office,” Louras said.
Rutland is the kind of place where people can’t escape one another. Even now, Louras sees his replacement, Allaire, regularly when he goes to maintain his garden, which is a few hundred feet from the new mayor’s home. The two even have the same nieces and nephews through marriage.
Louras said it’s not his responsibility to help the new mayor or give him advice.
“I’m an unemployed former army helicopter test pilot. And now, I’m an unemployed former small-town mayor. I’m just looking for a job that I can be successful at,” Louras said.
He doesn’t think Allaire has done much to fix the issues that Louras was once criticized for.
“I’m not sure anyone can communicate the value of refugee resettlement in a way where an entire community will accept it. It’s the families themselves who provide the best argument.”
Correction: A previous version of this story discussed a board of alderman meeting that occurred in May, 2017. It actually occurred in May, 2016.