MONTPELIER >> Vermonters opposed to bringing Syrian refugees to the state and those in favor of offering refuge to people fleeing the war-torn country held dueling rallies outside the Statehouse Friday.
About a half-dozen people were opposed to bringing Syrians to the state, while about 40 people supported the idea. For the most part the two sides stayed separate, but there were some strained debates.
"What we are talking about now is saving our country, saving Vermont," said Rick Lawrence, of Richmond, who held an American flag on his shoulder while he debated Bronwyn Fryer, of Montpelier.
"Saving from what?" countered Fryer.
"From these refugees, letting the FBI, the FBI has already said that we do not have," Lawrence said before being cut off by Fryer.
"Do you know any refugees? Have you ever met a refugee?" said Fryer.
H. Brooke Paige, of Washington, who ran for governor and attorney general last year and is considering running again for those offices next year, organized the first rally against bringing Syrians.
After news of his plans emerged, the Vermont Workers Center and similar groups decided to hold a counterdemonstration at the same time.
Paige called for the rally after Gov. Peter Shumlin said Vermont should welcome Syrian refugees who have been thoroughly vetted before being allowed to settle in the United States.
Vermont has several thousand refugees living in the state, but there are none from Syria, although plans call for the state to receive a small number.
Individual states do not have the legal authority to block refugee placement.
The Refugee Act of 1980 dictates that the federal government manages refugee resettlement within the United States, which consults with state refugee coordinators and nine resettlement agencies that have contracts with the government. But that consultation is largely to ensure the refugees are settled in cities with adequate jobs, housing and social services.
Both groups are planning to return to the Statehouse on Saturday, when they hope more people will be able to attend.
After his exchange with Fryer, Lawrence said he was attending the first protest rally of his life because he wanted to draw attention to what he sees as the dual threat posed by refugees — the inability to be sure they do not pose a threat and the possibility they will cost the state money.
"Basically the budget in Vermont is already broken," he said.
Fryer said afterward that she had attended the rally "to stand against ignorance and to stand for compassion. Obviously there are many problems we have to take care of, but to turn people away merely on the basis of some summary judgment without having the information is not intelligent."