The mechanism that made it possible for Kelli and millions of other forcibly displaced people worldwide to seek refuge in the U.S. was created when President Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980 into law. That piece of legislation standardized the resettlement process and raised the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 50,000 from the previous 17,400. It was part of a consequential immigration agenda that helped change the face of metro Atlanta – and of the country writ large.
The Refugee Act “opened the doors for people like me to be here,” Kelli said.
Few communities across the country felt the impact of that Carter initiative more than the city of Clarkston in DeKalb County, where more than half of the population is foreign-born. The so-called ‘Ellis Island of the South’ was also the first place the Kelli family lived in when they arrived in Georgia 22 years ago.
The town’s current mayor, Beverly Burks, said in a statement that “President Carter’s legacy of providing humanitarian support to people facing atrocities and civil conflicts” has helped refugees call Clarkston home for decades.
For Kelli, President Carter isn’t just a name signed at the bottom of a piece of legislation. He’s also an acquaintance.
In 2017, Kelli was invited by someone he had met at the Carter Center to visit the former president’s hometown and attend Sunday service at his church. When that finished, President Carter pulled him and his then fiancée aside for a 20 minute conversation.
“To me it was amazing. I came to this country as a refugee. I washed dishes … To be sitting there across from a U.S. president, it just shows me his character, his humility. Even someone like me is worth his time and attention.”
He added: “To know that someone like him is the reason why we have so many refugees in this country is interesting, right? … He comes from a very small town and he is able to produce an act that allowed in people that he probably not met when he was growing up. It’s kind of amazing. It makes you believe how great this country is.”
Credit: Courtesy of Heval Kelli
Credit: Courtesy of Heval Kelli
Bee Nguyen, the former Democratic state representative and candidate for Secretary of State, is the child of Vietnamese refugees. She says that, though her parents identify as conservative, they share a mutual and enduring admiration for President Carter.
“There was always this recognition in the household that President Carter was instrumental in helping the Vietnamese people,” she said. “My parents recognize that, not for his leadership and the decisions he made, it would have been much more difficult for them to rebuild their lives … There’s immense gratitude for it.”
In the years following the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, scores of refugees took to the seas, embarking on perilous journeys to flee political oppression and poverty at home. Most of the “boat people” who survived spent years in crowded refugee camps across Southeast Asia. Many nations were wary of accepting them – but President Carter wasn’t.
In stark defiance of public opinion, Carter announced in 1979 that he would double the number of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos admitted into the U.S. from 7,000 per month to 14,000. Polls at the time showed that roughly two thirds of Americans disapproved. But Carter remained steadfast, appealing to the public’s “traditional compassion.”
Nguyen’s own family members resettled in the U.S. starting in 1975 and into the 1980s.
“It requires tremendous courage to do what you believe is correct, even if it is not supported by the general public,” she said. “Having been an elected official, I recognized even more acutely what it requires to do that.”
More refugees were able to make their way into the country when Carter signed the Refugee Act.
In Georgia alone, just one resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, welcomed nearly 30,000 refugees from around the world since the bill was approved.
The IRC in Atlanta’s executive director, Justin Howell, says the nonprofit is aware of and values the fact that Carter played a defining role setting up the modern refugee resettlement program.
“It’s a huge source of pride for us … Anytime I can talk to community members here about Georgia being a welcoming community for refugees and immigrants, I usually remind people that there’s deep Georgia connections to the refugee resettlement program.”
With levels of global displacement reaching record highs, a re-examination of Carter’s leadership around refugee issues may be particularly relevant.
“We’d love for us to use this time of reflection as [President Carter] is living out his final days. I hope we can reflect on his legacy and we see it as a challenge to return to days where we can let our humanitarian spirit lead us and see politics as secondary to that.”