“…perceived to be unwelcoming”

The Virginia Council of Churches threw a hissy fit last week and shut down its refugee resettlement operation in Hagerstown.

It’s resettlement director, the Reverend Richard Cline, sent an email to the local newspaper, the Herald-Mail and decamped.

“The people who made the decision felt that it was not in the best interests of refugees to resettle them in an area that is perceived to be unwelcoming … I regret that our presence in Hagerstown had to end in such a manner,” wrote Cline, who was out of his office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

And others piled on:

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“The little town of Hagerstown will not have any great impact on the world’s problems, but it will continue to be recognized as a place where people of different backgrounds, races and religions are not openly welcomed,” George H. Miller, former coordinator at the Hagerstown Refugee Resettlement Office, wrote in a letter to the local newspaper.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then race baiting is certainly the first.

The problem is a lot more complicated that the VCC lets on. (two local blogs talk about the issue here and here) The problem is essentially one of that organization surreptitiously dumping refugees in a rural community, providing few if any of the services required, failing to coordinate their activities with local officials, hitting the city up for cash – which Hagerstown doesn’t have a lot of – and throwing a fit when they don’t get their way. All the time they continued to collect their per capita bounty from the State Department.

The editor of the Herald-Mail, Bob Maginnis, rather predictably jerked his knee and barely stopped short of labeling those who opposed this ill thought out resettlement attempt as bigots, xenophobes, and not nice people.

It’s the ones who can’t leave that I worry about. Consider this: A few couples I know have adopted children from China and other parts of Asia. They are lovely, well-behaved children.

What will their experience be as they grow older in a community “perceived to be unwelcoming” to people who are different? Will they stay and make this community a richer place or will they depart at their earliest opportunity?

I hope I’m wrong, but then I thought the refugee program had weathered the worst of the storm. Maybe it had, but the people in charge have decided to set sail for calmer waters.

Note the smooth segue from community concerns over the economic impact of large numbers of refugees to the bald faced allegation of widespread racism.

Few things have more of an impact on a community than a sudden demographic shift, even a perceived shift. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the “white flight” to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s or the uneasy relationship today between blacks and Koreans and latinos in historically black neighborhoods. The negative effects in both cases aren’t driven by large numbers but by perceptions. Some of the objections to the program might be unfounded, or based on what a lot of us would consider unsavory reasons, but a community has the right to a full and open discussion of the impact of a resettlement program and it has the right to not support such a program just as it has the right to not issue a building permit or to not support the construction of a road.

This is not racism. It is not xenophobia. It is democracy.

This is a concept that apparently is lost, not suprisingly, on the Virginia Council of Churches but also on Mr. Maginnis.

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