A new VPR poll shows Vermonters are divided over resettling refugees here, with significant numbers on both sides of the issue. It's the first time a VPR poll has surveyed residents on the issue.
Forty-five percent of respondents said the arrival of more refugees would have a positive impact, but a sizeable 35 percent of those polled said the overall affect would be negative.
There’s also a serious political rift on the issue: Two-thirds of Republicans see an influx of refugees negatively, while two-thirds of Democrats view it in a positive light.
Among those who identified as independents or affiliated with other parties, about half came down on the positive side and 30 percent in the negative column.
A small percentage of respondents had a mixed response to the question.
Justin Tanger of Mt. Holly, who participated in the poll, embodies both sides of the debate.
Tanger, who identifies himself as a Republican-leaning independent, says contact with people from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds is a good thing.
“It’s good to meet people like that and abolish knee-jerk stereotypes,” Tanger says.
In fact, cultural diversity is the biggest positive reason to bring refugees to Vermont, according to those who took part in the poll.
But Tanger is also alarmed about the recent attacks in Europe and he’s concerned about Muslim refugees, such as Syrians, coming to Vermont.
“A much higher percentage of Muslims hold extreme views against people with Western belief than other religions, and to deny that I think is sort of foolish,” he says.
For Tanger, the plusses of refugee resettlement are tempered by some potential negatives. But on balance, he sees a benefit.
“We can’t just shut people out because of their religious beliefs. I’m for controlled immigration and certainly Muslims are going to be part of that. Immigration as a whole I think is a net positive,” Tanger concludes.
Among poll respondents, though, only very small percentages saw refugees’ religion as a negative or cited safety or terrorism concerns over refugees resettling in Vermont.
That’s pretty much where Fiona Harris of Waltham comes down.
“The screening process is going to be so tight at this point because of that fear that the people that are coming through are just looking to come to somewhere safe,” says Harris.
She sees welcoming refugees as both an American tradition and a humanitarian issue.
Harris, who identifies herself as a Democrat, says she’s sensitive to worries that an influx of refugees would increase competition for jobs and resources. But she feels those problems can be managed.
If they are, Harris says refugees could help the economy.
“Once you get those people in jobs, they’ve got to buy their groceries somewhere ...When they feel safe, when they feel this is their home, then they want to set down roots,” she says.
The economic benefits of refugee resettlement were echoed by Andrew Gribbin of Montpelier, who says Vermont needs more working-age people.
“I think that’s one way to do it. I think Vermont has had overall a good history as far as various ethnic groups that we’ve taken in,” says Gribbin.
The poll respondents we spoke with for this story were all familiar with the debate in Rutland over refugee resettlement there.
Bob Maxham, 66, lives in nearby Clarendon. He thinks bringing in refugees will only compound problems in Rutland.
According to Maxham, “We have a hard time taking care of our own. Walk around downtown and see all the homeless people down there.”
Maxham is voicing the most frequently-mentioned negative impact of refugee resettlement: that it would take financial resources used to help other people.
Interestingly, while just 45 percent of those polled thought refugees would have a positive impact, 58 percent said they would support having them resettle in their home communities.
That’s because some people who said the impacts would be negative or mixed are still willing to welcome refugees.
The VPR Polls are made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.
This story was edited at 10:30 p.m. on 7/27/2016 to correct the spelling of Andrew Gribbin's name.