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Resettling Hope: Lessons Learned in Refugee Resettlement within a Small State


March 26, 2024 ~


War, perceived persecution, and ethnic or religious violence are just a few of the reasons that force individuals to flee their home country and seek refuge elsewhere. Refugee resettlement, on the one hand, can be seen as an instrument of foreign policymaking, but on the other hand, as an outcome or result of foreign policymaking. In 2024, the global population of forcibly displaced individuals is estimated at nearly 110 million people, with 2.4 million refugees in need of protection through third-country resettlement. This number applies to refugees and does not account for immigrants or asylum seekers, which have distinct definitions and application processes.


The focus of this blog is on refugee resettlement in the United States, and one state in particular. Vermont, or the Green Mountain State as it is referred to, has accepted refugees for over 30 years. But how has refugee resettlement impacted Vermont economically and socially? To gain a sense of the impacts, we first consider the overall structure of refugee resettlement in the United States, how this is organized in Vermont, and potential barriers.


The state of Vermont is shaded in red.


Policies associated with the resettlement of refugees in the United States frequently change as a result of current world events or the priorities of the incumbent President. The authorization to admit refugees to the United States was first granted under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in 1952. Many amendments have occurred over time, with the most recent being the Refugee Act of 1980. This Act establishes a permanent and systematic procedure for refugee admission to the United States. The coordination and management of accepted refugees is overseen by the Department of State's U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) under the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). PRM has cooperative agreements with many federal, public, and private nonprofit organizations that have networks of local affiliates providing resettlement assistance or services. The overall structure of organizations supporting refugee resettlement can be quite confusing with many entities involved. The University of Vermont and State Agricultural College created a helpful diagram generally outlining the organizations involved in refugee resettlement in the United States. The diagram can be accessed here.


However, refugee resettlement coordination at the state level varies. The structure is determined by the level of support from local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and respective state government offices. Some states may have field offices with state refugee coordinators and others may subcontract resettlement support to local nonprofit immigration organizations or service providers. The number of refugees assigned to a state is determined by the Department of State in coordination with the nine domestic resettlement agencies in the country and state authorities.  Refugees are often resettled in larger metropolitan cities that have access to more employment opportunities, public transportation, and housing. However, it is not uncommon to place refugees in smaller cities and rural areas.


Vermont is one example of a state with a smaller population, cities, and vast rural areas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, Vermont's population is just over 640,000, and no towns with more than 50,000 residents. Since the 1980s, Vermont has resettled approximately 8,000 refugees with an average of 300-350 refugees each year. The mission of refugee resettlement in Vermont is to promote and provide a safe and welcoming home for refugees and immigrants, and to promote their full participation as self-sufficient individuals and families in the economic, social, and civic life of Vermont. The state accepted a total of 312 refugees in 2023 and is approved to receive over 500 refugees in 2024. There are two federally contracted resettlement agencies in Vermont. The first is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) with offices in Colchester and Rutland. The second agency is the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) with offices in Brattleboro and Bennington. ECDC opened in response to the arrival of refugees after the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The two agencies in Vermont provide intensive resettlement services that focus on the refugee's first 90 days and with additional case management services for up to 5 years after arrival. There is also a small State Refugee Office that is part of the Vermont Agency of Human Services and works closely with the state resettlement agencies.


Additional support and funding for the State Refugee Office is provided by the U.S. Departments of State and Health and Human Services. Allocated funding varies and is dependent on the number of refugees assigned to a state. USCRI and ECDC augment additional funding and support from private organizations throughout Vermont. Levels of support also reflect local and state priorities, which may change with leadership and administrations. The list of private organizations can be quite exhaustive as each provides unique support as needed or requested.


The effectiveness of Vermont’s resettlement efforts owes much to the community-based approach used in finding solutions to support refugees and guide them toward self-sufficiency.  Refugee resettlement agencies consider self-sufficiency when at least one employable adult in the family secures employment within six months of arrival. According to the Vermont State Refugee Office Director, Tracy Dolan, approximately 80% of work-eligible refugees find employment in their initial months of arrival. One possible explanation for the success rate of refugee employment may stem from the prevailing labor shortage across the state. Vermont is one of the oldest states in the country with only 45% of the population between the ages of 24-44. The state as a whole has an unbalanced workforce with an aging population, fewer total workers, and a decline in participation among those eligible for employment. The Vermont Department of Labor has resources dedicated to assisting new Americans in finding employment. These resources and services include resume preparation, interview practice, and job search coaching.


In rural southern Vermont, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) has played a crucial role in aiding refugees assigned to ECDC in securing employment or accessing training opportunities. BDCC’s primary emphasis is on fostering economic development in southern Vermont, which led to the creation of Welcoming Workplaces. The program aims to integrate refugees into local businesses, address labor shortages, and consequently bolster the local economy. The Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV) offers employment assistance and support to refugees in the more urban areas of northern Vermont through case manager services and various programs. Presently, two workforce development programs are available to refugees, focusing on agricultural enterprise and allied health job skills training. These initiatives offer refugees opportunities to generate income.


The success of refugee employment results from a blend of the individual’s drive to work and provide for their family, coupled with the support from state resettlement organizations that have cultivated relationships with local employers. Alex Beck, the Welcoming Communities Manager for the BDCC, noted that employers express satisfaction with refugee employees highlighting their strong work ethic and commitment. This benefits Vermont, as refugees contributed an estimated $5.2 million in annual taxable wages in 2023. Not only do refugees address labor shortages, but they also contribute to the growth of the Vermont economy.


While refugees demonstrate the ability to secure employment, they encounter the challenge of finding affordable housing. The housing shortage in Vermont is the primary obstacle reported by the refugee resettlement community in the state. In the final week of February 2024, representatives from USCRI and ECDC conveyed to Vermont lawmakers the critical importance of addressing housing needs for refugees arriving in the state. In response to this request, the Vermont senate directed $671,000 to the initiative in the 2024 budget adjustment. The housing scarcity problems affecting the state have existed pre-COVID and affect Vermont residents, exacerbating the already limited availability of affordable housing options for resettled refugees.


During a recent Vermont Public interview featuring the USCRI-VT Director, Amila Merdzanovic, and ECDC Program Manager, Mark Clark, expressed concerns surrounding the housing crisis. Three potential solutions were discussed: 1) Immediate allocation of funds for housing, 2) Using Vermonters as host families, and 3) Addressing the need for the state to build more affordable housing. In response to the shortage of available housing, USCRI and ECDC have made requests for a reduction in the number of refugees assigned to the state. USCRI has proposed accepting only refugees with existing ties or families in Chittenden County, which would limit the number of refugees admitted in Colchester. Similarly, in southern Vermont, ECDC has also advocated for a reduction in refugee numbers. Despite efforts such as using student dorms offered on the World Learning campus for temporary housing, there remain limited housing options available for the projected 2024 refugee numbers for ECDC. Reducing the number of refugees could impact the existing infrastructure, resettlement services, and funding provided to the state.


A vast majority of the refugees assigned to Vermont make the state their permanent residence. Vermont is often regarded as a safe and welcoming community. Negative sentiment directed at refugees resettling in Vermont is scarcely reported. This is not to suggest there are no racial tensions, discrimination or expressed hate. Dr. Pablo Bose, a Professor of Geography and Geosciences at the University of Vermont, suggests that any negative sentiment is more affected by national politics rather than local ones. For instance, when Rutland, Vermont was designated as a resettlement location in 2016, some residents voiced criticism, echoing concerns similar to those seen in national debates on refugees. This included security, economic fraud, and the potential disruption of Rutland’s social fabric. However, the community overwhelmingly supported the decision to designate Rutland as a resettlement location. As a result, more than 20 separate groups emerged throughout the city to aid in refugee resettlement efforts.


Overall, Vermonters seem to be supportive of refugee resettlement in the state. A recent study conducted by the University of Vermont titled, “Refugee Resettlement in Small Cities,” extensively examined refugee resettlement in Vermont. The study surveyed residents from 2015-2019 and 2022, excluding the years 2020-2021. Results, highlighted in Figure I below, reveal an average of 83% of respondents expressed support for refugee resettlement in Vermont.



As highlighted below in Figure II, an average of 41% indicated a desire for Vermont to continue serving as a location for refugee resettlement at the current rate of approximately 300 refugees per year.



The resettlement of refugees in Vermont introduces cultural diversity to what is otherwise a relatively homogenous population. This diversity not only enriches the social fabric of the state but also contributes to its economic growth. By fostering cultural exchange and harnessing the talents and skills of refugees, Vermont strengthens its resiliency as a state.


From an evaluator’s standpoint, available data on the Vermont refugee resettlement program suggests successful efforts, despite resource limitations and unintended consequences. As can be expected, there is room for improvement. Currently, resettlement efforts are mainly decentralized among involved agencies, lacking a central coordination point. The State Refugee Office’s mission and capacity do not suit this role. Establishing an Office of New Americans, connected to nationwide state officials, may enhance coordination and alignment with U.S. refugee program goals, policies, and metrics. Additionally, a central coordination office for state resettlement efforts could enhance alignment with the recently established Resettlement Diplomatic Network. The establishment of this type of engagement would potentially enhance collaboration, and cooperation, and elevate the importance of resettlement efforts in Vermont.

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3 Comments


Guest
Mar 26

Thorough analysis, I would be curious on the employment breakdown of the resettled population to jobs like Lyft or Uber vs. permanent full-time employment. In Maryland a number of resettled Afghans (including former cabinet members) have found employment in places like Grubhub. Thanks for the post!

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Guest
Mar 29
Replying to

Thanks for the reply and the information! That sounds like an ideal environment for them earn sustainable income which we all know is critical. If that is coupled, as the article states, with population that is welcoming (obviously not always the case sadly) it gives them the best chance for adaptation. 'Brattleboro', your next goal is to ensure they become Patriot's fans!

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