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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

International Students At Burlington High School Cheer Vermont Immigration Bill

Peter Hirschfeld
Members of the Burlington High School International Club traveled to the Statehouse last week to watch the Vermont Senate pass a bill that limits the state's role in immigration enforcement.

Last week, the Vermont Senate gave unanimous approval to a bill that would limit Vermont’s role in federal immigration enforcement. And for a group of young Vermonters on hand to witness the Senate debate, the legislation hits particularly close to home.

Noorto Mohamed has only lived in the United State for a couple years now. That means her read on American politics is informed almost exclusively by the most recent election cycle. And for Mohamed, a student at Burlington High School, it is not a comforting situation.

“My family … we’re from a Muslim background, and we’re also refugees. We just came here a couple years ago,” Mohamed says. “But even though we’re citizens, we don’t really feel a part of America that much.”

Mohamed and her family emigrated here from Somalia, one of the seven majority-Muslim countries from which Donald Trump sought to temporarily ban immigrants of any status.

“My mom fears for us sometimes,” Mohamed says. “We’re just trying to get through it.”

Mohamed was one of 11 young women from Burlington High School on hand last Thursday to witness the floor debate of Senate Bill 79. The legislation would prohibit state and local police from enforcing federal immigration laws, unless they get clearance from the governor.

"We banded together to rekindle our national vision that everyone is equal and all are welcome. We loudly declare, 'All are welcome.'" — Shahed Khudaier, BHS student

The bill would also prohibit police agencies from collecting personal information that might be used for a federal registry based on religion or immigration status.

Mohamed says that, in a time of uncertainty and insecurity, the Vermont legislation means something.

“And this has definitely helped, seeing all the Americans who are very accepting,” Mohamed says.

The BHS students were all members of the school’s International Club. Several wore brightly colored hijabs. Susan Blethen, a BHS teacher and the International Club’s longtime advisor, says the group recently sent a letter to Senate President Tim Ashe, thanking him and other lawmakers for moving forward with the bill.

“And Sen. Ashe contacted us and said, 'Well, the bill’s coming to the floor, we’d like you to see the debate and we welcome you here.' So they invited us to see the debate personally, and we came down,” Blethen says.

The students aren’t leaving the activism to the adults. In December, after hearing about increased incidents of anti-immigrant rhetoric across the country, they decided to launch their own campaign, called “All Are Welcome.”

“We wanted a symbol that signifies kind of acceptance and the welcoming of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees,” says Quynh Vo, president of the International Club.

With the help of a graphic designer, they developed a logo: It’s a single white dove being cradled by two hands, under text that reads, “All Are Welcome.”

Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
In December, after hearing about increased incidents of anti-immigrant rhetoric across the country, Burlington High School students decided to launch their own campaign of acceptance.

They’ve sought permission to display the image in storefronts across Burlington.

“We are working to make all the people feel welcome,” says BHS student Shahed Khudaier. “We banded together to rekindle our national vision that everyone is equal and all are welcome. We loudly declare, ‘All are welcome.’”

Mohamed says she thinks Trump’s executive orders have had a chilling effect on Somalian refugees still hoping to make it to the United States.

“I know that they’re trying to come over here also, because it’s not a good environment right now. And it’s very hard to live there right now, and they’re trying to come here, so they’re like, ‘I don’t know what we should do,’” Mohamed says.

Mohamed says that the Burlington community’s embrace of the All Are Welcome campaign, as well as bills such as the one passed in Montpelier last week, give her reason for hope.

“And you can see it everywhere, in front of teachers’ doors. It’s a very safe place, a very tight-knit community,” she says.

This week, the Vermont House will begin taking testimony on the immigration bill. Key House leaders say they hope to hold their vote on the bill shortly.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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