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Watts: Immigration Story

They came to Vermont in the thousands and tens of thousands, in cold weather and hot. Not speaking the language, often relegated to the hardest and most difficult work, they were treated as second class citizens.

At the time, one Vermont scholar wrote that they were “an abominable crew of vagabonds, robust, lazy men and boys, slatternly women with litters of filthy brats….The character of these people is not such to as to inspire the highest hope for the future of Vermont,” he concluded, “if they should become the most numerous of its population.”

Discriminated against because of their religion and surnames, denied access to certain schools and hospitals, these immigrants to Vermont were treated harshly, despite Vermont’s population decline and need for workers.

Leaving poverty and over-crowding at home, they provided the hands that turned the looms and churned the butter and toppled the giant fir trees. They started new businesses and farms, brought music and laughter and vitality to a place badly in need of new life.

They were French Canadians and today most Vermonters are proud of that part of our identity. One of out of four of us can directly trace our ancestry to the waves of farmers and mill-workers who moved to Vermont between 1830 and 1930. Winooski and Burlington were their gateway to New England – one million passed through – but almost one hundred thousand stayed here in Vermont.

And without this influx Vermont would be a different place.

The same is true today. Without immigration from outside the US, Vermont’s population would be declining. In 2014 alone, studies show immigrants to Vermont earned six hundred and fifty million dollars and paid one hundred and ninety million in state and federal taxes. Today Vermont adds about a thousand immigrants a year.

Recent executive orders seeking to limit refugee resettlement programs and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries have cast Muslims and refugees in a negative light, suspended Rutland’s laudable efforts to make a home for a few dozen families from war-torn Syria - and provoked an urgent debate.

But we are a nation – and a state - of immigrants. And we are richer for it.

NOTE: In March, the Center hosts a conference examining French Canadian immigration trends and the lessons we can take from past waves of immigration as we think about the state’s future.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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