Sam Olens: Georgia cannot halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees

Hiba Tinawi, from Syria, holds her 6-month-old daughter Judy during an event to welcome Syrian refugee families who have recently resettled in the city of Clarkston, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, Clarkston, Ga. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Attorney General Sam Olens said in a formal opinion Wednesday that Georgia can't legally resist the resettlement of Syrian refugees, deepening a rift between the state's top lawyer and Gov. Nathan Deal's administration.

The opinion comes as the Deal administration has doubled down on its decision to withhold state food stamp benefits for newly arrived refugees from the war-torn nation, part of an executive order he signed in November instructing state agencies to halt involvement in resettling the refugees.

In the face of a federal threat of a legal challenge, it would fall to Olens to defend the policy in court.

In the opinion, Olens wrote that he is "unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program, no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be."

"Accordingly, it is my official opinion that both federal law and the State’s agreement to act as the state refugee resettlement coordinator prevent the State from denying federally-funded benefits to Syrian refugees lawfully admitted into the United States," he wrote.

A Deal spokeswoman said the governor is reviewing the opinion.

Olens' concerns come as little surprise. In an email obtained through a public records request earlier this month, Olens wrote to a Deal deputy that Georgia's response to the federal threat of a lawsuit over the policy "is not well supported in the law." Olens added that he's hopeful "every effort is made to resolve this matter without resort to litigation."

Deal's response was to request the formal opinion from the attorney general on the legality of the executive order, which polls show has broad support among Republican voters.

The tiff is a snapshot of Deal’s increasingly critical approach to the White House’s plan to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees nationwide since the string of terror attacks in Paris.

He has vowed that the state will vigorously defend his stance in court and bristled at the White House's demand in November that Georgia rescind the order or risk violating federal law by denying food stamp benefits to new Syrian refugees.

A Syrian refugee father and mother living with their four-year-old son in the Atlanta area have been waiting for weeks for the state to process their applications for food stamps and Medicaid. They arrived in the state days after Deal issued his executive order.

ExploreRead the entire order here.
ExploreRead more about the debate over Syrian refugees here. 

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