Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday he would oppose federal efforts to relocate Syrian refugees in Georgia, joining more than a dozen other Republican governors who raised concerns about the Obama administration's resettlement program in the wake of the weekend's deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.
Deal issued an executive order instructing state agencies to halt any involvement in resettling new Syrian refugees and directing state emergency management officials to confirm that those already here pose no security risk.
He also called on state and federal officials to "confirm" the backgrounds of the 59 Syrian refugees who have settled in Georgia since the bloody conflict there began.
"We think that’s the appropriate thing to do until the federal government and Congress can weigh in on an appropriate way to make sure that we’re not subjecting our homeland to the kind of problems that Paris saw," Deal said in an interview.
His remarks came after Republican leaders of states ranging from deep-red Alabama to deep-blue Massachusetts and Illinois issued similar statements about the attacks, which French officials said were organized in parts of Syria seized by the Islamic State terror group.
The opposition is largely symbolic. States do not have the power to prevent the federal government from relocating Syrian refugees to Georgia even if state leaders oppose it. And Deal acknowledged that the federal government can work around the roadblocks his administration set up.
"We’re going to do our best," said Deal. "We think it’s appropriate for us to take care of our people here in Georgia, and we think this is the appropriate step."
But the stampede of state-level opposition has stoked a larger national debate as conservative lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates call to end funding for the program, which aims to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. over the next year.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., argued that the White House can't afford to monitor the incoming Syrian refugees, including some he called "likely embedded terrorists," while also stepping up counter-terrorism efforts across the globe.
President Barack Obama on Monday mounted a fierce defense of the program. He said State Department screening subjects refugees to "rigorous screening and security checks" and said GOP calls for religious tests for some of the refugees was "shameful."
"Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values," he said from a conference in Turkey. "Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both."
Many governors said their opposition was a matter of national security.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared he will "not stand complicit to a policy that places citizens of Alabama in harm's way." Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a GOP presidential candidate, said it was "irresponsible and severely disconcerting" to continue to take in Syrian refugees. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he made his decision because “security comes first.”
Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from governors of states that have accepted relatively few Syrian refugees. The State Department, for instance, said 14 refugees from Syria had been processed through a federal center in New Orleans so far. None had been processed in Alabama.
Deal in September said he didn't want to see the number of refugees resettling in Georgia to increase, repeating an assertion that has been disputed by some advocates that the state takes in more than its fair share of refugees.
His administration also previously asked the State Department to keep the number of refugees resettling in Georgia "static" going into the next fiscal year.
Georgia – the eighth largest state with a population of 10 million – accepted the ninth largest number of refugees among states last fiscal year at 2,694.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, usually one of the region's most forceful advocates of a welcoming policy to refugees, also took a cautious approach. He said the federal government's vetting of Syrian refugees should be "significantly enhanced and changed."
"We’re going to have to redouble our efforts of vetting the individuals that come into the United States of America in a way that we would not have before,” said Reed. “The United States government is responsible for that vetting process and I think this needs to be reviewed and redoubled. And we cannot proceed status quo.”
Deal and other Georgia Republican leaders are under pressure from conservatives to take action suspending the Syrian resettlement program.
State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, said Monday it would be "unwise and immoral" for Georgia to accept more refugees from Syria.
"I pray that governors across our nation band together and put an end to President Obama's reckless Syrian refugee resettlement policy," said Williams. "The risk is far too great.”
Meanwhile, the rhetoric in some conservative strongholds is heating up.
State Sen. Fran Millar reports that, over the weekend, anti-immigration forces scattered anonymous flyers throughout his Dunwoody district -- even on windshields of cars parked at his church on Sunday. The flyers attack him by name -- he has an opponent in next year's GOP primary. A passage from the flyer:
"Your federal and state tax money is being used to bring Middle-Eastern Muslims to Georgia without a thorough background check. They have immediate access to all government programs including: Food stamps, welfare, health insurance, free cell phones and subsidized rents."
The flyer shows a crowd of worshipers outside, kneeling on prayer rugs. The picture is labeled "Fran Millar supporters."
"I understand political races, that things are said during a political race. But this foolishness is why people are disgusted with politics," Millar said. As far as the information contained in the flyers go, Millar said normal back-grounding of refugees is an 18 to 24 month process -- which is why he thinks President Barack Obama's promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees within a year is unrealistic.
The state senator also passed on some FAQs from the state Department of Human Services:
Who is a refugee?
A refugee is a person who is forced to flee from his/her home country due to fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Who decides the number of refugees that are resettled in Georgia every year?
The U.S. Department of State/Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration determines how many refugees Georgia receives annually and where they will be located.
How is the Refugee Resettlement Program funded?
Georgia’s Refugee Resettlement Program is administered by the Georgia Department of Human Services and is 100% federally funded.
If the state refused to accept federal funds for the resettlement of refugees in Georgia, would the resettlement of refugees in Georgia cease?
No. Under the Refugee Act of 1980 (8 U.S.C. 1522) the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is responsible for providing benefits and services to current and newly-arriving refugees resettled in the state through the State Department’s Reception and Placement Program, and to refugees who relocate to the state from elsewhere. In most states, the state government receives ORR funding to administer and oversee the refugee program. In states that do not operate a refugee assistance program, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization receives ORR funding to provide oversight and administer the program through an alternative model.
Do refugees automatically receive public assistance when refugees are resettled in Georgia?
Refugees arrive in the U.S. with legal resident status and are entitled to all of the rights afforded to other legal residents. Refugees have access to and are eligible for all services and public assistance that Georgians are entitled to as citizens and are held to the same eligibility guidelines.
What is the difference between a refugee and an undocumented/illegal immigrant and the process used to obtain citizenship?
A refugee has legal standing to be in the U.S. and may earn citizenship upon meeting all of the requirements. An undocumented immigrant does not have legal standing to be in the U.S.