Sam Olens questions Georgia's opposition to Syrian refugees

A rift has opened among Republican leaders over Georgia's policy to oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees, as the state hurtles toward a likely legal showdown over the policy.

Deal and the state’s top lawyer, Republican Attorney General Sam Olens, appear to be at odds over the legality of the governor’s executive order that directed state agencies to halt involvement in resettling Syrian refugees.

The rift is significant because, in the face of a federal threat of a legal challenge, the Deal administration has doubled down on its decision to withhold state food stamp benefits for newly arrived refugees from the war-torn nation. And it will fall to Olens to defend the policy in court.

In an email obtained through a public records request, Olens wrote to a Deal deputy on Friday 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 responded on Monday by requesting a formal opinion from Olens on the legality of the executive order, which polls show has broad support among Republican voters. Olens declined to comment on Monday.

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.

In a response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent last week, the Deal administration said it would not take back the directive.

"Recent events and the decision by the Obama administration not to honor Gov. Deal's request have, in his view, made his order necessary in order to protect the people he serves," wrote Bobby Cagle, who heads the Division of Family and Child Services, which administers Georgia's food stamp program.

Olens, who declined comment, said in the email to Cagle that he worried the state's stance could have "negatively impacted" a settlement agreement Georgia reached with food stamp recipients who claimed their applications weren't filed on a timely basis.

Despite the political rhetoric, Deal has also had to come to terms with the reality that states are powerless to stop that resettlement process, which is overseen by the federal government. As if to underscore that point, another Syrian family arrived in Georgia last week, becoming the first to relocate here since Deal vowed to halt their resettlement.

"I read the article in the paper this morning," Deal said Friday. "Isn’t it ironic that the United States government doesn’t see fit to tell the state of Georgia, doesn’t see fit to tell our Homeland Security official, who these people are and where they are? And the only way we know they are actually here is when they show up and ask for food stamps."

Our AJC colleague Jeremy Redmon asked that very question. He was forwarded an email that Joshua Sieweke, director of the World Relief Atlanta nonprofit, sent Michael Singleton, the state's refugee coordinator, on Dec. 1.

"I know it is not normal for me to communicate with you about the arrival of specific families," Sieweke wrote, "but in light of the state's current concerns about Syrian refugees, I thought you would appreciate knowing as soon as possible that we did receive a Syrian refugee today."

(Deal's office said it still hasn't heard from the White House over the refugees.)

The governor said his administration is bracing for a legal battle if the federal government or civil rights groups challenge his policy in court. Said Deal:

"We’re ready to defend it if we have to. I’d rather not spend taxpayer money defending something that can be avoided. I just don’t know why the federal government wants to do this behind closed doors in total secrecy, and don’t even trust state leaders charged with the security of our states with basic knowledge."

He also said he hasn't ruled out filing a legal injunction to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Georgia. Texas tried a similar maneuver last week before reversing course.

"If they keep prodding me I might," Deal said of the Obama administration. "And it appears they are willing to keep prodding. I’ve already told them if they don’t like the way we administer the food stamp program, if they don’t like the way we do it, let them come run it. We’ll handle it over to them."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.