RUTLAND, Vt. — They hustled into the church on a biting winter evening, unburdened themselves of scarves and gloves, and settled into pews to sound out words in Arabic.
“Ahlan fii Rutland,” said Fran Knapp, a retiree who lives about 20 minutes away, one of two or three dozen people who have attended a class here on rudimentary Arabic.
Welcome to Rutland.
It was one of many preparations this remote city in central Vermont is making before 100 refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive here over the next year, with the first expected to come later this month.
The plan — born in a time of deep national discord over Muslim immigration and criticism by President-elect Donald J. Trump of Syrian refugees specifically — has divided the city. A vocal opposition group called Rutland First sprang up, as did another effort, known as Rutland Welcomes, to collect donated items, help the new arrivals and watch for job openings that might suit them.
The proposal’s fiercest advocate has been the mayor of Rutland, Christopher Louras, who has often cited not the moral argument for resettling refugees, but an economic one: This shrinking city, long removed from its heyday as a marble producer and regional railroad hub, needs every new resident it can get. Syrian refugees, he has said, are an opportunity.
“Rutland’s demographic condition right now is not just one of a declining population, but it’s also a graying population,” said Mr. Louras, who became the mayor about 10 years ago as a Republican, but has since become an independent. “We need people,” Mr. Louras added.
But the preparations are unfolding under a cloud of uncertainty, because it is not yet clear whether, as president, Mr. Trump will make good on his campaign promise to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States and how that would affect the programs in Rutland and elsewhere.
“We are continuing to move forward as if nothing has changed,” Mr. Louras said.
Immigration is part of the history of every American city. But experts say that in recent years, some towns and cities, reeling from shifts in the economy and declining populations, have focused anew on potential economic benefits from immigration or refugee resettlement, even as immigration has become the subject of partisan political battles.
“Over the last couple of decades, especially in the last 10 years, places have started to develop strategies to attract and retain immigrants and resettle refugees in order to boost their economic activity,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied refugee resettlement in American cities.
Refugees are a small subset of immigrants, and many cities that have made a point of welcoming them say that they do so primarily for humanitarian, not economic, reasons. But as cities in the Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, and in other parts of the country, like Maine and upstate New York, set up offices to connect immigrants and refugees with services and job opportunities, advocates say economic benefits have arisen as a result.
“We’ve seen a few neighborhoods kind of turn around because of immigrants and refugees moving in,” said Melissa Bertolo, the coordinator for one such support group, Welcome Dayton. She added that cities in the Rust Belt are “all looking at how immigrant integration plays a part in that revitalization of a city.”
That is what some are hoping for here in Rutland, as the state suffers from population stagnation, according to Art Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont. The birthrate has declined and net migration has slowed, which Mr….