RUTLAND, Vermont—Mayor Christopher Louras sees trouble ahead for this small city of about 16,000 at the foot of the Green Mountains.
“It’s a strong, vibrant community but unless we do something to stem the population decline, we’re going to be in big, big trouble,” Louras said. “And it’s not just Rutland. Rutland is a microcosm of the state and small towns around the country.”
But the mayor sees a quick fix. He’s asked Vermont’s resettlement agency to send refugees to Rutland, and says they would help fill vacant housing and entry-level jobs to keep the economy moving.
It’s an approach small towns from Montana to Georgia are increasingly considering as they grapple with shrinking and aging populations.
The mayors of Central Falls, Rhode Island; Clarkston, Georgia; and Haledon, New Jersey, joined big-city mayors last year in signing a letter saying they had accepted Syrian refugees and would take more. And as some governors and members of Congress called for a halt to the arrival of refugees from Syria, the mayors of Normal, Urbana and Evanston in Illinois; Socorro, Texas; and Clearfield City, Utah, signed a letter that noted “the importance of continuing to welcome refugees to our country and to our cities.”
FEW refugees have resettled in Montana since 1991. But with Missoula Mayor John Engen’s support, a branch of the International Rescue Committee opened its doors and the group has arranged to help settle 100 Congolese refugees, who are expected to start arriving this month.
The decision to seek refugees, especially Muslims from Syria, can be a political lightning rod. The mayor of Sandpoint, Idaho—population 7,800—proposed welcoming Syrian refugees when he was sworn in, in January, but withdrew the idea the same month after raucous protests. But there’s a growing sense among local officials, especially in small towns, that refugees have something to offer the economy, said Eskinder Negash, a former director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“Every time a refugee rents an apartment, every time a refugee shops for food, there’s some income coming in for the city and going into the tax base,” said Negash, now a senior vice president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a network of groups that help resettle refugees around the country. “There’s a new realization that refugees can be an economic engine for some of these small communities.”
SMALL towns and rural areas across the US have been losing population since 2010, though the losses have shrunk to 4,000 a year in 2015 from an average of 33,000 a year earlier in the decade, according to a May report from the US Department of Agriculture.
But in many areas, refugees have helped to offset or reverse the losses.
About 350 refugees settled in Fargo, North Dakota, last year, mostly from Somalia, Iraq and Bhutan.