fb-pixel Skip to main content

Vermont governor says give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Gov. Phil Scott wants more refugees to settle in Vermont, where a lot of people still believe the US has a moral obligation to those fleeing war and persecution.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott.Wilson Ring/Associated Press

MONTPELIER — Phil Scott is something of an anomaly. A Republican, he has been re-elected twice as governor with huge mandates in a state that is not only overwhelmingly Democratic, but where they formed a Progressive party because so many think the Democrats aren’t woke enough.

If the captain of the Ever Given had steered his ship as well as Scott has steered Vermont through the pandemic, the Suez Canal wouldn’t have been blocked.

Scott also happens to be a genuinely nice guy.

Mix that together, a politician who is secure electorally and personally, and you get a governor who is bucking all sorts of trends, including this one: He is asking the feds to increase the number of refugees allowed into his state.


For Scott, it’s a mix of economic necessity and human decency.

When I asked him why he wanted more refugees, Scott sounded both realistic and idealistic.

“We have our challenges here in Vermont, our demographics. We have an older population, a stagnant population, not a lot of diversity. And I believe accepting more refugees would help us in every regard,” he said. “Vermont needs more diversity and we need to do our part to welcome those from war-torn countries and bring them into Vermont as new citizens, as new Americans. I think we have a moral obligation to welcome them and make them part of Vermont, because we certainly could use the help.”

While Vermont’s unemployment rate of 3 percent is just half the national average, a lot of it has to do with not having enough workers. With a population of just 630,000, Vermont has lost nearly 34,000 from its 25- to 45-year-olds over the last 20 years, Scott said.

“To grow our workforce,” Scott said, “we need to welcome more refugees to our state.”


Before the Trump administration dramatically reduced the number of refugees allowed into the United States, Vermont took in an average of 325 refugees a year. Last year, only 26 of the 100 spots allocated to Vermont were actually filled.

On three separate occasions, Scott formally requested more refugees from the Trump administration. He touted the fact that more than 90 percent are financially self-sufficient within 8 months of arriving in Vermont.

But Scott never heard back.

When he learned the Biden administration planned to raise the nation’s annual admission level from a historic low of 15,000 under Trump to 100,000, Scott figured he’d try his luck again. His March 15 letter, asking to at least triple the previous allotment, was answered in a week.

Nancy Izzo Jackson, the State Department official to whom Scott sent the request, didn’t commit to specific numbers, but was impressed by Scott’s enthusiasm.

“I appreciate the thoughtful nature of the concerns you expressed and am gratified to hear that Vermont remains such a welcoming community for new Americans who arrive to this country through the US Refugee Admissions Program,” she wrote.

Since the creation of that program in the 1980s, Vermont has resettled some 8,000 refugees.

“They have contributed immensely to the state’s economy and social fabric,” Scott said.

Most of those resettled in Vermont are from Bhutan, Burma, Bosnia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Vietnam.

The spirit of welcome isn’t universal across the Green Mountain State. In 2016, Chris Louras, the popular five-term mayor of Rutland, caused an uproar when he proposed resettling Syrian refugees in Vermont’s fifth-largest city. He lost his bid for a sixth term to the current mayor, who opposed the proposal.


But Scott says he has received no pushback, and wouldn’t be deterred even if he did.

“There’s political risk with almost everything that I say or do,” he told me, “but this is being done for the right reasons.”

In this, a sadly cynical age, the governor of Vermont actually believes in the altruistic words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, mounted on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

If only there were more like him.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.