Trump says America is 'full' but this US state says 'not us'

By Rupa Shenoy
PRI's The World

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image captionLeaves changing colour on trees in Autumn draw "leaf peeper" tourists to Vermont

President Donald Trump has claimed that the United States "is full", and incapable of allowing entry to any new and diverse migrants. But citizens in one mostly-rural state say they couldn't disagree more.

Forty years ago, Curtiss Reed Jr came to Vermont for a ski vacation and got stuck in a storm. He had to sleep in a Dunkin Donuts for two nights before he could make it to a friend's house. That gave him plenty of time to take in Vermont's natural beauty.

"I spent three weeks skiing, eating, drinking and decided this was paradise," says Mr Reed, a consultant with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. "Six months later, I moved here."

But since then, Mr Reed has seen downtown shops close in towns across the state. Taxes have gone up. Wages for many have stagnated. Mr Reed says that's because Vermont has only tried to attract one kind of new resident.

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image captionCurtiss Reed Jr, the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity

Despite President Donald Trump saying "our country is full" earlier this month during a visit to the US southern border, Mr Reed says if Vermont wants to improve its economy, it needs to bring in more people.

But the New England state has two problems. It doesn't have enough people to do the jobs it already has, and it doesn't know how to attract people of a different demographic from Vermont's current population, which is nearly 95% white.

Under the Trump administration's policies, there are fewer refugees, immigrants and temporary visa workers coming into the state.

Joan Goldstein - commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development - says the race is on. States across the US are competing to attract new residents, she says.

"I know that sounds very mercenary but we're in a competitive marketplace," she says. "Vermont's marketing strategy for decades was white, heterosexual males with family incomes of $120,000 (£92,000) or more. That population is shrinking."

Vermont has made a big change in their approach, she says. Instead of just trying to attract businesses to the state, they're now appealing directly to individuals.

"Other states have asked us how we did this because they're also interested in some of the same types of tactics," she says. "So clearly, even though it's a departure, it's probably going to be more mainstream soon."

This year Vermont began handing out $10,000 (£7,600) for certain workers who move to remote parts of the state.

"There was significant interest from outside the US on the initial publicity hit we had," she says.

"I would say close to 25% of people coming in with inquiries were from other countries."

But so far none of the 26 people approved for the grant have been refugees or people who moved from another country. That may be because there are barriers for immigrants who want to work in the state.

Chris Winters, the deputy secretary of state, says it's been difficult for people to get their credentials from elsewhere to qualify in Vermont.

"When you go beyond protecting the public you start unfairly keeping people out of professions who are otherwise qualified to be there," Mr Winters says. "So, we can really do a lot still in Vermont to improve access to our workforce."

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image captionStowe, Vermont, in 1956

This month the Vermont legislature passed a bill that would make it easier for many immigrants to transfer their qualifications so they can get certified for jobs in the state. The governor is expected to sign it. The state is also making other moves, like hiring a chief racial equity and diversity officer.

Mr Winters hopes those measures will help to attract, among others, nearby Canada's many new, diverse immigrants to work in Vermont.

He believes diversity is key to keeping millenials in the state - and points to his own daughter, who's leaving Vermont for university because she doesn't feel like she's met enough different kinds of people.

"I think it's really unfortunate that we've heard statements recently like 'America is full,' 'there's no more room at the inn,'" Mr Winters says.

"I can tell you there's plenty of room in Vermont."

But Marita Canedo, with the group Migrant Justice in Burlington, says Vermont still has a long way to go before it appears to be welcoming of all immigrants and minorities.

image copyrightReuters
image captionBucolic Vermont is making an attempt to attract a more diverse workforce

"If you're going to promote a state as 'The Green Mountain,' beautiful landscape, you have to take into account the people that are there already, and struggling, which is the dairy industry," Ms Canedo says.

Many people who work in Vermont's dairy industry are undocumented. Cruz Alberto Sánchez-Pérez came to Vermont from Mexico in 2015 to join two of his brothers working on dairy farms.

He says they were paid less than minimum wage and didn't get a day off until they organised to demand better wages and benefits.

It's still a tense environment for people who look like him, says Mr Sánchez-Pérez, even though he's just won asylum in the US.

In addition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Border Patrol has jurisdiction 100 miles (160km) from the federal border, which includes much of Vermont, and is on alert for undocumented people trying to cross into Canada.

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image captionA US guard watches over the Canadian border near Beecher Falls, Vermont

Vermont has also had some recent race problems.

"Over the last three or four years, we've had a number of unfortunate incidents," Mr Reed says.

In 2017, the city of Rutland's incumbent mayor campaigned on bringing in Syrian refugees to reinvigorate the local economy. The pushback he faced drew national attention and he lost in what was seen at the time as a referendum on refugee resettlement.

Last year, Kiah Morris, Vermont's only female African-American state senator, resigned because her family was being harassed.

In Stowe, racial slurs were yelled at non-white counsellors and children at a camp.

"There any number of places around the state that have had these incidents," Mr Reed says.

"And in the absence of a robust response, what's left in people's minds is: 'Eh. Vermont. I believe the SNL skit,'" he said, referring to a Saturday Night Live segment aired last year which parodied a meeting of racists.

"If they're going to keep coming here, we're going to go someplace else," the character leading the meeting in the skit says. "Our own place for our own people. No immigrants, no minorities. An agrarian community where everyone lives in harmony because every single person is white. Yes, sir?"

"Yeah, I know that place - that sounds like Vermont," special guest Adam Driver said in character. The audience laughs.

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To dispel that image of Vermont, Mr Reed says the state and local governments have to actively campaign against it by appealing specifically to immigrants and minority communities - because not all of them get information the same way as white people.

Vermont could advertise through social media via the online community colloquially known as Black Twitter. It could advertise in Spanish.

"It starts with an invite," Mr Reed says. "And if you're inviting only to a shrinking population, then the net result of that is that your economic growth and prosperity is in jeopardy."

Unfortunately, Mr Reed says, the natural beauty that drew him to Vermont isn't enough to sustain its economy.

The state will also have to learn to embrace change.

The World is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI/PRX and WGBH. You can listen and read more here.

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