In refugee debate, some want to see what application says
RUTLAND — Some residents and elected officials in Rutland County say they're frustrated they've been unable to obtain the full 126-page application for local refugee resettlement that the U.S. State Department is weighing.
Rutland County Sens. Kevin Mullin, Peg Flory and Brian Collamore will participate in a meeting Monday at the Rutland Free Library to discuss issues related to refugee resettlement, including the application.
The group hosting the meeting, Rutland First, has challenged the plan to bring refugees to Rutland and the process by which the decision was made. In a news release announcing Monday's event, it said residents and members of the Board of Aldermen have made Freedom of Information Act requests for a copy of the application from the State Department and other agencies involved but have been rebuffed.
Mullin said he has made his own requests, to no avail.
One of the entities both Mullin and Rutland First cited is the Agency of Human Services. But a representative said the agency has never seen the full application.
"I would love to look at it," said Dean Mudgett, public records officer for the agency, "but we don't have it here."
Mudgett said he's spent considerable time double- and triple-checking to see if the agency had ever received it. "It would be available through a (public records request) if we had ever been given it," he added.
Mullin said he's not opposed to refugee resettlement and doesn't want Rutland to be perceived as unwelcoming but thinks the application should be a public document.
"It's hard for us to get answers too," he said. "That's what's frustrating."
The application is written and submitted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental organization. The committee's Vermont affiliate is the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
The committee has made public a three-page section of the application known as the abstract, which provides some information on housing, employment and other resources specific to Rutland.
Because the application process is competitive, the organization has a policy of not sharing the full application with the public, according to Stacie Blake, the group's director of government and community relations.
According to the State Department's fiscal year 2017 announcement for the refugee resettlement program, applications must include "supporting documentation for new sites." The request for proposals states that "all applicants should provide a statement of rationale for proposed new sites." This includes documentation of community consultations, the completed abstract, and letters of support from various state and local agencies.
In addition, the proposal asks for an explanation of the proposed management structure at the new location, a timeline for opening the site and a "detailed training plan" for resettlement staff.
Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program
Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, said the statement of rationale is a "pretty comprehensive" overview of the region's employment opportunities, education system, housing capacity, language resources and community services. Merdzanovic said the statement of rationale dealing with Rutland is about 10 pages long.
Asked if she would consider making it public, Merdzanovic said that was a decision for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants president and CEO, Lavinia Limon. Limon is on vacation until the middle of next week.
In an interview in June, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration said applications would be subject to FOIA requests when abstracts had been finalized and included in the department's cooperative agreements with national agencies — in other words, when the locations for resettlement have been selected. The State Department is expected to announce its decision in September. "At that point they would be available through FOIA," the spokesperson said.
After the application has been submitted to the State Department — the initial deadline for doing so was May 20 — the abstract was sent to Vermont's refugee coordinator, Denise Lamoreux, in the Agency of Human Services, according to Mudgett. Lamoreux and other members of AHS review the abstract and consult various stakeholders before making a final recommendation, he said.
The general counsel for the agency, Allan Sullivan, will be at the information meeting Monday night, according to Mudgett.
Wendy Wilton, Rutland City treasurer, said the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants should release the full application.
"If they really want to overcome the issues that people are having with them in this community, they would just say, 'Here's the application,'" Wilton said.
Mullin agreed: "Why wouldn't (the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program), in an effort to bring the entire community on board, just release it?"
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