MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin says Republican gubernatorial candidates, like their fellow Republicans seeking the presidency, are stoking fear and bigotry by calling for a halt to Syrian refugees relocating in America.
Less than a week since the terror attacks in Paris jolted the world and sparked new fears about the threat of global terrorism and the reach of ISIS, conversation across the U.S., including Vermont, has focused on the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country, and the extent of America’s responsibility and moral obligation to help.
Listen to Gov. Peter Shumlin discuss Syrian refugees on the Capitol Beat podcast:
Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau Wednesday, said Syrian refugees, like immigrants from all nations in past years, will make American and Vermont a better place.
“I really feel that America was created on the backs of folks who emigrated to this country under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Some were fleeing war, some were fleeing death squads. Let’s not forget all the Jews who escaped Hitler’s wrath and gas chambers,” the governor said. “When we talk about these folks, when I see them on TV, when I see the clips, these are moms and dads, their children. They’re leaving behind relatives who either got killed or will get killed.”
Shumlin’s message is in stark contrast to the two Republicans running for governor. Both Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman said this week that they want to stop Syrian refugees from relocating in Vermont.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to do the same until such time as the federal government can prove its meeting its national security obligations, making sure that there is a rigorous process to be sure that it’s just peace-loving Syrians and others that want to come into our states,” Scott told Vermont Public Radio.
Lisman, meanwhile, called for taking “a step back.”
“The events in France have clearly heightened our concern and we do not want to inadvertently import dangerous people,” Lisman said. “The people of Vermont are a caring people who value helping the needs of others. But Vermonters have a right to know how complete and thorough the vetting process is.”
Shumlin said their views are inconsistent with American and Vermont values.
“I think that those comments from both candidates are extraordinarily disappointing and I don’t think they’re in the spirit of the way we do things in Vermont and I don’t think they’re in the spirit of what’s made Vermont great,” he said.
Refugees relocating to the U.S. are carefully vetted through a process that involves the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, the governor said.
“It’s always worked for us so far and I think that these folks that are making comments like this are promoting fear, are promoting hatred, are promoting bigotry, at a time when we should be reaching out as Vermonters and saying, ‘How can we help?’ — when folks are escaping from horrid, horrid circumstances,” Shumlin said. “Frankly, I think they’re helping to promote exactly what the terrorists want, which is build up fences, don’t let folks in, make sure that those that are hurting are even more angry at the United States of America.”
Shumlin acknowledged that “probably a lot of Americans agree with them” because “there’s a lot of fear out there.” Foreign countries did not turn away Americans following a domestic terrorist attack, or after numerous mass shootings, he argued.
“When some whack job terrorist goes into Oklahoma named McVeigh, Oklahoma City, blows up a building and kills hundreds of people, including over 30 children who are at a pre-school there, the rest of the world didn’t go, ‘Well, don’t let Americans into our country.’ When some extraordinarily deranged person walks in … and blows people away at the movie theater, the rest of the world didn’t go, ‘Well, don’t let the Americans come over here, look what they do,’” Shumlin said. “When you go into Newtown, Connecticut, someone, and shoots up a school, the rest of the world doesn’t go, ‘Well, let’s stop letting in the visitor’s visas for Americans, certainly don’t let them emigrate here, look what they do.’ My point is, this is a horrid, horrid circumstance, but the people that are trying to escape from Syria right now are hardworking, good people who are escaping death squads, who are escaping political prosecution, who are escaping horrid circumstances, and I say it is folks like that who built America, that built Vermont, and if we slam the door on them right now that’s a shameful act.”
There are currently seven or eight Syrians going through the process to relocate in Vermont. They have been navigating the system for months, Shumlin said, but so far, the state has not taken in a single Syrian. That’s is likely to change in the future, however.
The governor criticized Scott and Lisman for advocating for significant growth in the state’s population at a recent candidates’ forum but standing in the way of allowing Syrian refugees to make Vermont their home.
“I was watching one of their conversations, debates discussions, recently, and they both said that they wanted to increase Vermont’s population from 650,000 to 700,000 people when they become governor. Now, I don’t know if they think that I’ve got a one-child policy they they’re going to get rid of like China did, but how are they going to increase our population by 50,000 if they won’t take seven hardworking Syrians?” he said.
Shumlin said Vermont can help boost its population by welcoming Syrians and others while creating a more diverse state.
“There’s no question that Vermont should be open to all people and the only way we’re going to grow our population in Vermont, since the people who have been here are not making babies at the rate that we did in the 50s and 60s, is by increasing diversity, by ensuring that we become a state that isn’t the whitest state in the country. We’re not going to do it any other way,” he said.
The governor said he will continue to welcome the refugees to Vermont and is hopeful that other governors will follow.
“What I say is, if we give in, and I agree with the president, to that kind of hatred and that kind of fear, you know, it really is shameful. It is not the way that we as Americans and as Vermonters promote a free and just society that is the foundation for the greatest democracy in the world. Whenever we are overcome by fear and hatred America loses,” Shumlin said.