Political News

Election throws US plans for Syrian refugees into question

Posted 12:13 p.m. Sunday
Updated 12:16 p.m. Sunday

In this Nov. 14, 2016 photo, bartender Star Kulig poses at a VFW in downtown Rutland, Vt. After months of bitter debate, the down-on-its heels city is preparing to start accepting up to 100 Syrian refugees. The city's mayor, the main proponent of bringing the refugees to his community, hopes to provide the refugees a sanctuary while at the same time using their presence as part of his broader effort to revitalize his city. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

— Arabic language classes are drawing 25 to 30 people a week in preparation for the new arrivals in town. High school students are helping collect furniture and housewares for them, and employers have inquired about giving them jobs.

For the past several months, Rutland has been getting ready to receive 100 mostly Syrian refugees beginning early next year. But with Donald Trump taking office in late January, Rutland's plans and those of other U.S. cities that have agreed to take in people fleeing the civil war have been thrown into question, given the incoming president's hostility to Muslim immigrants.

"I am not even going to hazard a guess" about the fate of the program, said Mayor Christopher Louras, who invited the newcomers in the hope they can help revitalize this shrinking, post-industrial, heroin-plagued city of 15,800.

In the fiscal year that just ended, the Obama administration screened and admitted nearly 12,600 Syrian refugees, who were resettled in cities and towns across the U.S. Thousands more are scheduled to arrive in the coming year.

During the campaign, Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country and called for a moratorium on accepting Syrian refugees for fear of terrorists slipping through. He also vowed "extreme vetting" of would-be immigrants from countries plagued by extremism.

Presidents set the quotas for refugees allowed into the country. Once Trump takes office Jan. 20, he could cut off the flow or reduce the number the U.S. will accept. The president-elect's transition team had no comment this month on his plans.

Stacie Blake, spokeswoman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said her organization hopes Rutland will start seeing the refugees arrive by mid-January. Once admitted to the U.S., refugees cannot be expelled unless they have committed a serious crime or are found to have lied to gain entry.

Rutland's plan has been welcomed by some and condemned by others, who warn that the refugees could not only pose a security threat and but also take away housing, jobs and social services from locals.

"It's just sad, sad. We don't need any more people here, from anyplace, but especially the Syrians, because who knows, there could be one terrorist in there. Once they're here, they're hard to get rid of. They're like a tick, or rats," Rennie Masler said.

Among the many other U.S. communities preparing to accept Syrians and other refugees in 2017 is Bowling Green, Kentucky, a long-time refugee resettlement community that took in about 400 mostly African immigrants this year. It expects 40 Syrians in September.

Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center of Kentucky, a refugee resettlement agency in Bowling Green, said he isn't so sure Trump will follow through on his threats.

"Campaign rhetoric is completely different from governing, and there are so many things that we might say because we are in the heat of a campaign, and when we get into the practicality of things, we do it differently," Mbanfu said. He added: "I believe we will be fine."

Two Iraqi refugees who arrived in Bowling Green in 2009 were charged two years later with attempting to provide money and weapons to extremists in Iraq. Both are serving prison sentences.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said that of the 784,000 refugees cleared for resettlement in the U.S. since 9/11, only the two Iraqis in Bowling Green and a third man from Uzbekistan were later arrested and accused of planning acts of violence.

In Rutland, the mayor sees accepting refugees not just as a humanitarian gesture but as a way to boost the population and inject energy into the city, which had a booming marble-quarrying industry that was built on immigrant labor from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The local hospital, restaurants, ski resorts, contractors and other employers have expressed interest in hiring the refugees, Louras said.

Rutland's population has dropped by about 700 since the 2010 census, and the city has suffered from the surge in heroin use that is hitting small-town America. Rutland has been using a mixture of law enforcement, treatment and neighborhood revitalization to fight the drug scourge with some success. It has been helping to buy and seize drug houses and either demolish them or renovate them for new owners.

As preparation for the refugees continue, Morgan Denehy, a Rutland County native who majored in Arabic and spent two terms in college living in north Africa, is giving the weekly Arabic lessons.

"Even if it's how to say 'hello,' even if you learn one or two phrases to say something to someone," he said, "it can make such a difference."

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Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington and Dylan Lovan in Bowling Green, Kentucky contributed to this report.

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