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When a Vermont mayor's sought to make his town a home for Syrians fleeing their country's war, he drew opposition from national groups that say Syrian refugees could be dangerous. Well, those opponents have gained traction under President Trump. This week, he told ABC News he would make deep cuts in the U.S. refugee program.
Trump's message is reverberating in little Rutland, Vt. It has just received two Syrian families, and they might be the last. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Usually we'd start a story like this on the streets of Rutland, and we'll get there in a moment. We start this story in Washington at the offices of the Center for Security Policy to meet director Frank Gaffney. He's published books and policy papers that supply some of the talking points for a national anti-refugee campaign and was cited by Donald Trump when he was a candidate. Here's Gaffney.
FRANK GAFFNEY: I think you are going to see a very different attitude towards the whole program, the whole problem.
AMOS: He's talking about refugees, Muslim refugees.
GAFFNEY: They have to share our values.
AMOS: Gaffney insists many Muslims who come here want to impose Islamic law or Sharia in America, views that others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, describe as paranoid fantasies. Gaffney is on the group's hate watch list.
What do you say when they say, you are a hater; you are Islamophobe?
GAFFNEY: I say the Southern Poverty Law Center is being used to suppress people who are telling the truth. We're simply going to be saying the same things we've always been saying. It's just that they're going to, at this point in the dynamic, be policy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN)
AMOS: And now to Rutland, Vt. I'm standing in front of the fire station where that foghorn goes off every night at 10 minutes to 9. It's a signature of the city, and so are the darkened storefronts here and the light traffic. It's where Frank Gaffney's views played out locally as this town divided over resettling 25 Syrian refugee families.
As word spread that President Trump was going to scale back the refugee program, something that Frank Gaffney had promoted, it was bad news for Rutland's mayor, Christopher Louras.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Say this again.
CHRISTOPHER LOURAS: We are done.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
LOURAS: (Unintelligible). It's done.
AMOS: At a local cafe, the mayor explains to his supporters that the two Syrian families that have arrived are probably the last. Sandy Gartner breaks down in tears.
SANDY GARTNER: There are some of us want them.
AMOS: She was part of a volunteer group - Rutland Welcomes - that made elaborate plans to assimilate the 25 families into this blue-collar town. The mayor is devastated, too.
LOURAS: Better they heard it from me than read about it in the newspaper.
AMOS: People were crying.
LOURAS: People should be crying for humanity's sake, for the community's sake.
AMOS: Louras says he wanted Rutland to host the Syrians to do the right thing, but he also wanted newcomers to boost a community that's rapidly losing population and needs workers. Rutland was built by immigrants a hundred years ago. Now Syrians could inject new energy.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...
AMOS: And here's where the national campaign comes back in the picture. At Rutland's library, national anti-refugee activists came to speak. One was James Simpson. His book "The Red-Green Axis" charges that the American left and Muslim extremists are working together to undermine America. It's the same message he delivers on a radio show run by Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy.
JAMES SIMPSON: And it's a duty of Muslims according to the Koran to settle, populate and take over the places that they immigrate to.
AMOS: The man who invited Simpson to speak here is Dr. Tim Cook. I meet him at his medical clinic. He says he agrees with Simpson's message that Muslim newcomers are different than previous immigrants.
TIM COOK: We have a community that is steeped in 250 years of Eurocentric culture.
AMOS: He points to a vacant storefront outside his clinic. He knows Rutland needs an economic boost but declares refugees are not the answer.
COOK: It just seems - I mean I'm trying to be polite about this. But it seems a little delusional.
AMOS: In the end, Rutland didn't say no to Syrian resettlement, but President Trump seems poised to close that door. Back at Rutland's Speakeasy Cafe, Peg Andrews, a former member of Vermont's legislature, says the fight isn't over.
PEG ANDREWS: I think there are a lot of people who really feel very strongly that this is the right thing for us do and it's the right thing for the community.
AMOS: For now, she and others in Rutland are trying to find a way to keep the refugees coming. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Rutland, Vt.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER SONG, "FANTINO")
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