The journey from war-torn Syria to Rutland, Vt., has suddenly become more difficult for an estimated 100 refugees, following a declaration by the city’s aldermen that they do not support the controversial resettlement plan.
The Board of Aldermen, in a 7-3 vote last week, decided to send a letter to the State Department that said the public had been kept in the dark about the plan, developed largely in secret by Mayor Christopher Louras and others to accept Syrians who have fled the onslaught of Islamic State forces.
Although Louras has insisted that a majority of Rutland’s residents welcome the refugees, most aldermen have now taken a step in the opposite direction. The plan, announced publicly in April, had been months in the making.
“We are still learning about the program and still trying to identify and address concerns to which the lack of information and outreach has contributed,” the board wrote to the State Department.
“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,” the letter said.
A State Department decision is expected by mid-July. If approved, the plan would place more Syrian refugees in Rutland than anywhere else in New England, with the first group expected to arrive in October.
A State Department statement issued Friday offered little indication whether it would be swayed by the vote.
“We are committed to working with communities across our nation who are willing to offer safety to some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, and we will consider this correspondence, as we do with all expressions of support or concern, as we make decisions about next year’s program,” the statement said.
William Notte, the alderman president who votes only to break a tie, harshly criticized the letter.
“Rutland has a reputation for shooting itself in the foot,” Notte said in a phone interview. “On this occasion, the Board of Aldermen saw the bear trap, walked around the bear trap, talked about the bear trap, and jumped in with both feet.”
The letter, Notte said, “runs a significant risk of branding Rutland as unwelcoming” and “is an instance where the people who made the decision were swayed by the loudest voices in the room.”
President Obama has called for the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States during this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Notte noted that the resettlement plan is supported by the governor, the state’s congressional delegation, the local Chamber of Commerce, and a group of more than 1,000 residents called Rutland Welcomes.
David Allaire, an alderman who voted for the letter, said the vote should be viewed as an act of caution, rather than hostility toward refugees.
“I’m not against resettlement, per se, but I’m against resettlement under the current timeline,” said Allaire, who criticized the plan’s secrecy. “I believe that people will look at this as, ‘Oh, they’re taking a close look that their community is ready to take on, in some ways, such a monumental task.’ ”
Other critics have complained that their concerns — ranging from possible terrorist infiltration to disease to competition for jobs and services — had not been sought or heard.
An effort to schedule a citywide vote on resettlement fell one alderman short of approval on Tuesday. Despite a 6-4 vote in favor of the ballot measure, which had been sought by a citizens’ petition, seven votes were needed to pass, Notte said.
The aldermen president described such a vote as un-American because it would ask whether people should be rejected based on nationality.
“It would have been a horrible misstep,” Notte said. “Just the idea of having a vote would have sent a poor message about us as a community.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.