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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.

Rally for Universal Background Checks - Montpelier, VT 8/4/2016
Thank you for your support !

Forum on Refugee Resettlement Held in Charlotte

Note: This essay appeared as an article in the December 6, 2016, issue of The Charlotte News.

In the aftermath of a contentious national election that raised strong feelings regarding immigrants, minorities and religion, there continues to be significant opposition to the prospect of Rutland becoming a haven for Syrian refugee families. The images of people desperate to escape from the Syrian civil war and ISIL persecution landing on the shores of Greece in fragile boats as well as the reports of the thousands that drown trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea are part of the contemporary news cycle. Once they reach asylum in the first country of their destination, they are relegated to refugee camps where they wait with hope to be relocated to a more permanent location through the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). As aware of this situation we might be, we may not be familiar with the subsequent process that leads to resettlement.

A week after the election more than 60 people from Charlotte and surrounding communities gathered at the Charlotte Senior Center on November 15th to hear a presentation by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) and the accounts of refugees who are now new Vermonters. The idea behind the forum organized by Charlotte Representative Mike Yantachka with the help of VRRP was to increase public knowledge of the refugee experience: what caused them to become refugees, what process did they have to go through to enter the U.S., what challenges they face when they arrive and what their obligations are now that they are here.

According to the UNHCR there are currently 65.3 million refugees worldwide. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. Between 2013 and 2015 about 70,000 refugees per year were admitted to the United States according to the State Department. President Obama stated that 85,000 would be admitted in 2016 and another 100,000 in 2017. With the recent election, the latter number may change.

VRRP representatives Kristen Rengo and Sophia Kimball introduced the program at the Senior Center with two videos featuring first person accounts of refugees who resettled in Vermont from Somalia, Bhutan and Bosnia. Before entering the U.S. refugees undergo an intensive screening process by multiple agencies including the FBI, Department of Defense, National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security, and the State Department. According to VRRP, this vetting process takes 1,000 days on average to complete. Prior to arrival, they also undergo medical screenings for both communicable diseases and mental disorders. Once they are accepted, they are assigned to one of nine resettlement agencies that are affiliated with 250 offices spread out over 49 states. Vermont was designated a refugee resettlement center in 1980.

Refugees receive assistance including housing, mentoring and a stipend for six months after they arrive in the U.S. The housing is provided at market rates, and it is up to the refugees to support themselves after six months. This means that to afford housing in Vermont, it is often necessary for large family groups to occupy rental housing. VRRP works with landlords to make these arrangements work and with employers who can provide jobs.

The Senior Center audience also heard from Yvonne Nigena from Burundi who currently lives in Burlington and from Puspa Luitel from Bhutan who is a Charlotte resident and serves on the Town Planning Commission. Yvonne described her family's flight from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and their stay in Tanzanian refugee camps where she was born before being granted asylum in the U.S. She attended Burlington High School along with refugees from many other countries. She said that their different customs and clothing set them apart, sometimes uncomfortably, from the other kids. One thing that Yvonne is really passionate about is dance, and she plays a strong leadership role in keeping the art of traditional dance alive. She also announced that her dance group would be performing at the VT International Festival December 2nd through 4th in Essex Junction. After graduating from BHS she attended Community College of Vermont and will start at Castleton University in January.

Puspa Luitel spoke of the expulsion of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan in the 1990s, who were stripped of their citizenship. After fleeing to Nepal, Puspa attended school in the refugee camp up to 10th grade and went to India for 11th and 12th grade. In India Puspa completed four years of a five year law program. Then his family applied for resettlement in the US and came to Vermont in 2008. He resumed his undergraduate studies at Champlain College and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. Since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014, he graduated from Vermont Law School and is very interested in practicing law in Vermont. Through the affordable housing program he had the opportunity to purchase a home in Charlotte where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is active in advocating for the refugee community and received an appreciation award from the City of Winooski in recognition of his outstanding service to the community. Puspa serves on the Planning Commission as a way to give back to his Charlotte community.

More information about the Refugee Resettlement Program can be found at refugees.org/Vermont and at www.embracerefugees.org.
Puspa Luitel speaks to a Senior Center audience on November 15, 2016, about his experiences as a former refugee. – Photo by Janet Yantachka

Legislative Report 10/29/2016 - Looking Ahead

As we approach the election, I want to thank my Charlotte and Hinesburg constituents for your confidence in me and the work I have been doing for the last six years in the Legislature.  I want you to know that I do not take your support for granted and will continue to keep you apprised of what is transpiring in the Vermont House on a regular basis during the session through my weekly columns in our local newspapers. Two-way communication is essential, so I welcome your input as well.

The campaign rhetoric at the national level is very disconcerting to me and, I’m sure, to you as well. The strength of our great nation – and it continues to be Great – is our ability to engage in civil discourse despite our disagreements and work collectively for solutions to the problems affecting our society, economy and environment.  Here in Vermont we still seem to be able to accomplish that feat.  While everyone may not be perfectly satisfied with an outcome, all voices will be heard and acknowledged, and compromises will be reached.  A good example of that is the energy project siting bill that we passed last session, which includes taking wind turbine generated noise into consideration for future projects.  On the most controversial issues, such as marijuana legalization, gun regulation, and vaccine requirements, the legislature holds extensive public hearings and takes this input into consideration as legislation is developed.

There are always controversial issues that confront the Legislature, and the upcoming session will be no different.  Marijuana legalization will again be considered.  We now have more data coming from Colorado and other states that have already legalized marijuana.  According to a report cited by Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen, teen use of marijuana in Vermont is already twice as high as tobacco use.  Frequent marijuana use by teens and young adults harms brain development and has a strong correlation with poor academic performance. With public input and recommendations from the Health Department, we will hopefully be able to come up with reasonable regulations as well as increase efforts to discourage its use among teens. 

I also expect a strong push to pass legislation requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, which I support.  With or without the support of the new Governor, this legislation will be introduced for consideration in 2017. While Vermont may not see the same amount of gun violence as other states, our lax gun regulations make it easy for criminals to buy guns here and take them back to Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New York.  According to New York’s Attorney General, 1% (489) of the 52,000 traceable guns involved in crimes in New York alone came from Vermont (ref. https://targettrafficking.ag.ny.gov/tool/).  I-91 on the other side of Vermont is known by law enforcement as the “Iron Highway” because of the exchange of drugs for guns by out-of-state criminals along this corridor. Background checks will also provide additional protection for victims of domestic violence.

While refugee resettlement is not an area over which the State of Vermont has jurisdiction, it did become an item of discussion late in the 2016 session. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Center in Colchester coordinates the resettlement program for all of Vermont. Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announced in April that Rutland was willing to accept 100 Syrian refugee families for resettlement in Vermont.  Because his announcement caught City Council members as well as the general public by surprise, a negative reaction resulted in dividing residents of Rutland.  The greater Burlington area, including Charlotte, has been host to refugees from many trouble spots across the world, including Bosnia, the Congo, Somalia and Bhutan. I recently had the occasion to speak with Mr. Puspa Luitel, a Charlotte resident and member of our Planning Commission, about his experience.  As a result of that conversation I have arranged with the Resettlement Center to sponsor a public forum on November 15th at the Charlotte Senior Center from 7:00 to 8:30 PM. It will feature some of Vermont's newest residents, including Mr. Luitel, who will share their experiences both before and after their arrival.  I hope you will consider attending what should be a very informative event. 

As always I want to hear from you.  I can be reached on my cell phone at 233-5238 or via email at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

Thank You for Your Support!

I want to express my thanks to the voters of Charlotte and Hinesburg for giving me a strong re-election endorsement. I have always tried to represent all of you well with the understanding that there are some issues on which consensus will be hard to reach. I will continue to do so. I appreciate your input and want you to always feel free to contact me anytime by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone (802-233-5238).

With a little help from my Grandsons, Reid, Evan and Guthrie.

Let's Grow Kids on Chittenden County Democrats Show

Vermont is facing a crisis of insufficient affordable child care. Let's Grow Kids is a non-profit that is seeking to call attention and seek solutions to this problem. On Monday, November 7th, 2016, Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte/Hinesburg) sat down with LGK Campaign Director Robyn Freedner-Maguire to discuss the state of child care access in Vermont. Watch the interview below.  You can find more information at www.letsgrowkids.org.

Happy Labor Day!

Today we celebrate all American workers and the Labor Movement that has achieved the greatest standard of living in the world.  The labor movement grew over the past century largely as a result of immigrant workers who fought for a living wage and safer working conditions.  They could not have accomplished their goals without banding together in labor unions and presenting a solid front to those who controlled the economy.

The Labor Movement brought us the minimum wage, a 40 hour work week, social security, paid vacation and sick time, and, by working with management, employer-sponsored health insurance. During WW II workers and industry stepped up together to accomplish a miracle which saved the world from totalitarianism, and afterword to build a society that rivals all others.

The Democratic Party continues to stand with Labor to build on the progress of the past which has been eroded over time.  The federal minimum wage of $7.50/hour is no longer adequate to support a family with both parents working 40 hours per week. While Vermont's minimum wage ($10.50/hour) is substantially better, it is still not a living wage.  Employer-sponsored health insurance still plays an important part in our economy, but is not universal.  The Affordable Care Act has extended health care insurance to 90% of Americans, but Vermont Health Connect has had major problems that still must be fixed. And as a result of years of effort, Vermont now requires employers to provide earned sick leave to all employees working more than 18 hours per week.

These are key family values that are essential for a healthy society.  I will continue to support these values in my work as a State Legislator.  I wish everyone a happy Labor Day.