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Nadworny: Welcoming Refugees

It’s heartbreaking to see pictures of people trying to flee the Middle East for a better life - just as it was looking at the terrible pictures this spring of Africans trying to desperately cross the Mediterranean Sea in dangerous boats. Those trips, risking the lives of loved ones, might be the ultimate expression of the desire for human freedom. And for me, it raises the question of what we could be doing here in Vermont, to help.

UVM economist Art Woolf has recently written in the Burlington Free Press that he thinks Vermont could reasonably and easily take in 5,000 Syrian refugees. He even notes that in some past decades Vermont grew at about 5,000 people per year. What a contrast with our current stagnating - or even declining - population growth.

Personally, I agree that both from a humanitarian and economic development standpoint Vermont should work to place more immigrants in small, rural towns and cities throughout the state. We’ve seen how cities like Springfield, St. Albans, Barre and others have suffered from the loss of manufacturing jobs. We’ve seen how small towns struggle with fewer and fewer students in their schools.

At the same time, many small Vermont towns worry that there’s a lack of infrastructure and jobs to support such an influx. And that concern is valid, but according to the New York Times, many studies show that immigrants bolster growth by increasing both the labor force and consumer demand. Rather than being a drain, immigrants generally come to pay more in taxes than they claim in government benefits - so even a large influx of immigrants doesn’t necessarily mean fewer jobs for the existing population.

According to a new study by two national policy organizations, immigrants accounted for ALL of the net Main Street business growth nationally between 2000 and 2013. And while they make up only 16% of the U.S. labor force, immigrants make up a healthy 28% of small business owners.

Then too, there are cultural benefits. Burlington and Winooski are already two refugee resettlement cities, and they’re two of the most vibrant places in Vermont – with schools, restaurants and opportunities for cultural engagement that are world-class, in the best sense of the word.

In addition to talking about recruiting, attracting or retaining talented Vermonters, we can also take action to help the diversity of our rural state grow and thrive. And we can do it in way that helps solve a critical world problem - beginning with welcoming some of those Syrian refugees to Vermont.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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