Gov. Brian Kemp, center,  posing with former refugees at a “new Americans” celebration at the state Capitol on Valentine’s Day last February. Photo by Joseph McBrayer for the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies.

Opinion: Brian Kemp has a month to decide if there's room in the inn

Gov. Brian Kemp has roughly four weeks to decide whether there is any room in the inn – or if future international refugees will be shunted off to stables in other states.

Religious leaders across Georgia are encouraging the governor to keep the “Vacancy” light on — but very gently, very quietly. They have seen what can happen when Kemp is pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go, even by a U.S. president.

“The resettlement of refugees in Georgia has overwhelmingly been a positive thing for the state and everyone in it. They’re vital workers in some of Georgia’s most important industries,” said Jim Neal, director of operations for the non-profit group, Friends of Refugees.

Neal is one of the gentle persuaders. He describes his sessions with Kemp’s staff as “very cordial,” but he has no clue about the governor’s intentions. I inquired as well, but was met with a "no comment."

Over the last 40 years, Georgia has taken in 60,000 human beings fleeing the worst the world has to offer. Some have escaped genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Myanmar. Others have been walking debts of honor – refugees from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, forced to run because of the help they gave to U.S. troops in their midst.

Many of last year’s crop, who numbered 1,330, came to Georgia from the Congo and Syria. All have been federally screened. All have been federally subsidized. None are illegal.

We currently have a resident of the White House who has purposely diminished the role of the U.S. as a safe haven from the world’s troubles. Some 90,000 refugees entered the U.S. each year during the Barack Obama administration. This year, President Donald Trump has pushed that number down to 18,000.

“My administration has taken bold action to reduce the influx of refugees,” Trump told those attending his rally in Michigan on Wednesday. “We are making sure local communities like yours have a much greater say about who gets admitted into your own neighborhoods.”

On Sept. 26, Trump issued an executive order that said the federal government would require the active, annual consent of local and state officials before sending any more refugees their way. The decision essentially gives governors the power to veto such programs in their states.

A 90-day deadline for letters of consent has been extended, apparently after someone figured out that doors slammed shut on Christmas Day made for poor optics.

Even so, many governors have already issued letters of welcome. Tennessee’s Bill Lee, a Republican, made his public on Wednesday. But Kemp has been silent – which is significant, because under the terms of Trump’s executive order, doing nothing is equivalent to a “no.”

There is a history here. Gov. Nathan Deal often expressed hostility to the federal resettlement program, and the lack of control states had over it.

In 2013, at a state GOP convention, Deal condemned the “inordinate” number of refugees the federal government had placed in his state. This was only weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured several hundred. The perpetrators were quickly identified as two immigrant brothers whose Muslim family had been granted political asylum in the U.S.

In 2015, President Obama announced that the United States would accept 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria.

Deal signed an executive order that halted any state cooperation with the settlement of those refugees – but was forced to retreat when Attorney General Sam Olens said the governor lacked the authority to do so. (This is how we learned that Olens wouldn’t be running for governor in 2018.)

The question is whether anti-refugee sentiment, despite Trump, has cooled in the general GOP population. There is a moral argument to be made, but refugee advocates are leaning more on an economic line of reasoning.

We mentioned Jim Neal a few paragraphs ago. He is also the chairman of a coalition of 21 non-profit Georgia organizations that offer immigration and refugee services.

“Over the last five years, and we have the data, 87 to 92% of refugees settled in Georgia are economically self-sufficient in six months,” Neal said.

Local officials, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have sent their letters of consent to the U.S. State Department. “This is a local control issue,” Neal said. “What we’re seeing in Georgia is those local communities that have the most refugees are open for more.

“That’s because these folks come here and they go to work. They pay rent, and they shop local stores. They’re much more likely to start a business than a native-born American,” Neal said.

More than 200 evangelical leaders in Georgia – including pastors of some of the most conservative churches in the state – signed a Dec. 9 letter to Kemp, encouraging him to give his consent.

“If refugees are no longer allowed to be resettled to Georgia, it would disrupt the reunification of many families who have been waiting years to be reunited,” they wrote. And if Georgia opts out of the federal refugee program, they could still come, the evangelical leaders warned.

“If Georgia restricts their resettlement, many will likely exercise their lawful right to simply move to Georgia immediately after being resettled in another state, so as to join their family,” they wrote. “But in doing so, they will move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.”

It is difficult to discuss refugee settlement without also mentioning Clarkston, a DeKalb County community of 13,000 – about half of whom are foreign-born, according to Mayor Ted Terry, who is also a 2020 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. His city is the Ellis Island of Georgia.

In October, only a few weeks after the Trump executive order was issued, Terry was on the University of Georgia campus talking to a group of young Democrats – when he learned that Governor Kemp was talking to young Republicans in the same building.

Terry left his gig early to button-hole Kemp – not about politics, but about the refugee issue. The governor offered Terry his business card, and Kemp’s staff later followed up. Terry was one of the few I talked to who expressed doubts that Kemp would allow the continued flow of refugees into Georgia.

“I’d like to be optimistic about it, but I also know it’s an election year,” he said.

The new deadline for Kemp and other governors is Jan. 17, which in a way is even more significant than Christmas Day. Mid-January is when many sermons focus on the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, to escape a King Herod who had ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem.

Among Christians, it is the ultimate refugee story.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.