World Relief’s five remaining refugee resettlement employees in Georgia will assemble at their Stone Mountain office for the last time Monday and say goodbye. The Christian humanitarian agency is eliminating their positions and suspending its federally funded refugee resettlement program in the Peach State after 40 years of continual service here.
The move comes amid the Trump administration’s efforts to drastically shrink the number of refugees coming to the United States. On Thursday, the federal government announced it is cutting to 18,000 the number who will be given safe haven, down from 30,000 this fiscal year and 45,000 the year before that. The Obama administration set a goal of 110,000 for fiscal year 2017.
Depending on how Gov. Brian Kemp responds to President Donald Trump’s executive order this week that would allow states to reject refugees, the number arriving in Georgia could even drop to zero.
Refugee policy has been divisive. In 2016, then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed an order seeking to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia but relented after the state's top lawyer concluded he had no legal power to stop them from coming.
The Trump administration’s rollback is already being felt here. New American Pathways, another Atlanta-area resettlement agency that receives federal funding for each refugee it helps, has lost a fifth of its $5 million budget and shed six and a half positions since Trump took office.
International Rescue Committee’s Atlanta office has eliminated three case worker positions during that time. World Relief had cut 24 positions in its Stone Mountain office before it decided to suspend its resettlement program in Georgia, though it will continue offering legal services to immigrants there with a smaller staff.
The resettlement agencies spent an estimated $1.5 million on rent and utilities for refugees in Georgia last fiscal year, with much of that money flowing into Clarkston and Stone Mountain. Many refugees work in the state's poultry processing, manufacturing, warehousing, tourism and hospitality industries.
Advocates are planning to rally in support of refugees Saturday afternoon in Clarkston. Joshua Sieweke, the Atlanta office director for World Relief whose last day on the job is Monday, is scheduled to speak at the event.
"I think we need to show our greatness by how we respond to the least of these," Sieweke said, playing off Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. "We should have the greatest refugee resettlement program in the world. We should show the world how to do it. Instead, we are running away as if it is a problem that we are not great enough to solve."
Others in Georgia back Trump’s approach.
“Local communities have the right to take into consideration whether or not their infrastructure can handle more. The United States has more than done its part,” said Julianne Thompson, a Trump supporter and former co-chair of the Atlanta Tea Party. “It is time for other nations — who criticize us but have far stricter immigration policies — to step up.”
The Trump administration says the U.S. is already at its limit.
“This proposed ceiling takes into account the ongoing security and humanitarian crisis on our border and the massive asylum backlog, which now includes nearly one million individuals,” the White House said in a statement. “The overwhelming backlog is completely unsustainable and needs to be addressed before we accept large numbers of refugees.”
The annual number of refugees resettled in Georgia has dropped by more than half since 2016, from 3,017 to 1,118. Most who have arrived in Georgia this fiscal year came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Eritrea.
Also this week, Trump issued an executive order this week that requires state and local governments to provide written consent to the federal government in order for them to accept refugees.
Scrutiny of the Obama administration’s resettlement program escalated after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people. Deal and other governors said they had little confidence that the U.S. could screen out would-be terrorists from Syria, the terror group’s stronghold. State Department officials responded at the time by pointing to a rigorous vetting process for refugees that often takes two years.
Gov. Kemp, Deal’s Republican successor, campaigned on a promise to round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. He declined to comment about Trump’s decision this week.
“While this will have an impact on service organizations and communities, our greatest concern is how devastating this decision is for those fleeing persecution and seeking to rebuild their lives in safety or hoping to reunite with their family.”
J.D. McCrary, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Georgia and Florida
“Local communities have the right to take into consideration whether or not their infrastructure can handle more. The United States has more than done its part. It is time for other nations — who criticize us but have far stricter immigration policies — to step up.”
Julianne Thompson, a prominent Trump supporter in Georgia
“Senator Perdue commends the Trump administration for taking steps to ensure that refugees from across the globe are welcomed into the communities that will best serve their needs. Additionally, the senator believes the president is right to seek cooperation from our allies and requesting that the international community step up in assisting the world’s displaced people.”
Casey Black, a spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue
“Local businesses are going to be hurt. Refugees come in on a weekly basis. They’re buying things. They’re going to schools. It’s going to cause short- and medium-term damage to our local economy.”
Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
Refugees resettled in the United States/Georgia by fiscal year
*Through Sept. 27.
Top Five Native Countries of Refugees Resettled in Georgia in Fiscal Year 2019
Democratic Republic of Congo: 522
Source: U.S. State Department