Emma Lazarus’ famous poem is often cited as voicing the best impulses of our country. But it’s kind of a double-edged sword: The spirit of generosity is counterbalanced by the implicit message that immigrants are “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse,” which is far from the truth. In fact, immigration —including refugee resettlement — has brought energy, talent, motivation and a propensity for hard work to our country.
Lazarus’ poem makes it seem like an open-door policy is purely a matter of charity. But it’s quite the opposite. The influx of New Americans is, by a long shot, a net positive for our country, our economy and our culture.
Which brings me to this particular moment in Vermont. Donald Trump almost completely closed the doors to immigrants and refugees, which put a halt to Vermont’s efforts to become a destination for New Americans. Joe Biden has promised to loosen restrictions on immigration and refugee settlement, including raising the annual refugee cap from Trump’s 15,000 to 125,000, which is higher than it was in the Obama Administration.
It’s time for Vermont to get in on the ground floor. Gov. Phil Scott has talked of New Americans as a key in growing our economy and easing our demographic crisis. He needs to act in concert with legislative leaders and our Congressional delegation to promote Vermont as an immigrant destination. He needs to consult with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to determine what we can do to help people move here successfully.
This kind of commitment is far more likely to pay off than any of Scott’s penny-ante ideas for attracting new residents, including the endlessly-touted but marginally effective remote worker grant program.
I’m assuming here that growing Vermont’s population is a good thing. I know some disagree, but look: We are aging rapidly. We already have a shortage of workers in many fields. We need an economic boost to get us out of a long, slow tailspin. And immigration is by far the best way. In fact, I’d argue it’s the only way for Vermont.
Back in 2016, then-gubernatorial candidate. Phil Scott was calling for a more than 10 percent increase in Vermont’s population. VTDigger columnist Jon Margolis wrote one of his better pieces about this. I’ve quoted it before, but it’s just as relevant now.
States experience that kind of growth only after a discovery of natural resources (such as the California Gold Rush of 1849 or North Dakota’s Bakken Shield oil and gas in 2006) or when the federal government decides to invest billions in military, aerospace or energy projects.
In all its history, Vermont has had but one period of rapid population growth. It was in the 1960s and 1970s. The federal investment that made it possible was completion of interstates 89 and 91. Vermont’s version of “gold” was lots of cheap land, which happily coincided with a time when many young people had money and a yen to get away from the hurly-burly of metropolitan life. They bought that cheap land for second homes or communal farms, and the population boomed.
It has not boomed since and had never boomed before.
That’s the simple truth. Significant population increases don’t just happen. Something more than flashy websites and Stay To Stay programs and remote-worker grants are necessary.
Refugee settlement has been the key driver in some notable success stories in the Northeast. Lewiston, Maine has become a thriving community thanks to Somalian immigration. Schenectady, New York has staged a remarkable comeback thanks to its open-door policy. Imagine the same kind of thing, on a smaller scale, in Rutland or Bennington or Barre or St. Johnsbury or Springfield or Brattleboro.
Economically and culturally speaking, it’d be a godsend.
There would, of course, be problems. It takes time and effort to create inclusive communities and give refugees the support they need for a successful transition to a new life.
And it would require an openness to change that’s awfully rare in Vermont. We tend to like things the way they are. Remember the turmoil that followed then-Rutland mayor Chris Louras’ plan to settle 100 Syrian families in his city.
I don’t know if we can overcome that mindset. But it would be in our best interest. Our economy would benefit, and our entire society would benefit from the exercise of being open to change. Our food scenes would get a lot more interesting. (I love shopping in Burlington’s ethnic markets.) Our culture would become more vibrant.
Diversity brings change. It can be uncomfortable. But it creates a stronger economy and a better society.
Let’s open the doors right now, while the opportunity is in front of us.