Officials Conspired to Conceal Refugee Resettlement in Vermont
Public in small town deliberately kept in the dark about plans to move in 100 Syrians
A federally funded refugee resettlement organization conspired with the mayor of a small Vermont town to keep the public in the dark about a plan to relocate 100 people from war-torn Syria, according to documents released Friday.
The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch obtained 128 pages under Vermont’s open records law. The documents include an email from Amila Merdzanovic, executive director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, asking Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras not to hold a public meeting on the resettlement plan.
“If we open it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of woodwork. Anti-immigrant, anti-anything.”
“I want to share with you the concern my HQ has about holding a public forum,” she wrote on April 14. “If we open it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of woodwork. Anti-immigrant, anti-anything. They suggest that the forum be invite-only but make it as wide as possible. Work with faith leaders, United Way, etc. … Perhaps, we could go back to the Congregational Church and continue the conversation there.”
So shrouded in secrecy was the resettlement plan that most of the town’s aldermen did not realize what was taking place behind closed doors, according to Judicial Watch. William Notte, president of the Board of Aldermen, knew about the plan but did not share it with his colleagues until a day or two before Louras announced it at an April 26 news conference.
The State Department has not yet decided if it will follow through on the refugee plan in Rutland, but federal officials have been working to secure homes for more than 10,000 Syrians who have arrived in the past 12 months on President Obama’s plan to offer a safe haven to Syrians caught in the middle of a nearly six-year civil war.
Judicial Watch pointed to financial disclosures signifying that the resettlement agency’s parent organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, receives 91.5 percent of its $50.9 million budget from government grants.
“Americans should be concerned that the Obama administration is funneling at least $46 million in tax dollars to a shady operation that encourages elected officials to cover up Obama’s Syrian refugee scheme,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a prepared statement.
Neither Louras nor Rutland’s city attorney could be reached for comment Friday.
Four days before Merdzanovic’s email to Louras, she wrote the director of the Vermont Refugee Office and state refugee coordinator to explain how she was working with the mayor to control the flow of information.
“He did share with me that the governor’s office called him after getting a frantic call from DOL [Vermont Department of Labor] inquiring about the plan to resettle ‘100 Syrians in the next month’ in Rutland,” Merdzanovic wrote. “Again, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not sharing the information, even if it is confidentially. Please respect our process, you will have plenty of opportunity to share and take action once we have met with the stakeholders. At that point we can and will share it widely. It will not serve any one of us well if the community in Rutland learned about it through the grapevine and not directly from us. The above example shows that what people hear and how they interpret it is two different things.”
A document included in the Judicial Watch file lays out housing, jobs, medical care, and places for worship that the Rutland would need to provide for the refugees. The city has no mosque and no other Syrian refugees. Handwritten notes on that document indicate that the issue was “not what can ‘we’ do for ‘them,’ but what the diversity, cultural richness [can] do for this community.”
That talking point was reflected in the meeting introduction on May 3 by Hal Cohen, secretary of the Agency for Human Services. “Vermont gains from diversity — new ideas, delicious food, a real commitment to want to make our county and our state a great place,” he said, according to notes of the meeting.
The mayor’s decision to aggressively — and secretly — pursue the refugee resettlement plans drew the ire of some aldermen, who accused him of acting unilaterally. The Board of Aldermen this month called for an investigation into how the mayor handled the issue.
“He’s not the king of Rutland,” Don Chioffi, an alderman in a neighboring town, told the Burlington Free Press in July. “This community belongs to the people.”
Louras apologized for the communication breakdown but told the paper that bringing in refugees would breathe new life into the city. Merdzanovic remained unrepentant about the secrecy. She told The Boston Globe May that it was “the right thing to do — to move slowly, keep it to a small circle of people, and then expand.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, criticized the secrecy.
"It is stunning to see this attempt to hide the details from the public when they have a legal obligation to consult with the public," she said. "Clearly, they knew how controversial this would be."
Vaughan said she knows Rutland well since her husband grew up in the area. It is an economically depressed area, she said.
"I'm not surprised there's opposition," she said. "I'm having a hard time imagining how these refugees are going to thrive … It shows they may already have refugee fatigue in Vermont."
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the secrecy is one more sign that America's political leaders are out of touch.
"It doesn't surprise me, and it's part of the reason the electorate is so enraged at the political leadership," he said.