Georgia’s ‘Ellis Island of the South’ braces for Trump’s travel ban

January 31, 2017, Clarkston - Amina Osman, with the International Community Outreach & Information Services, speaks at the podium during a special session of the Clarkston City Council in Clarkston, Georgia, on Tuesday, January 31, 2017. The session is taking place to discuss president Donald Trump’s recent executive orders and how the city of Clarkston plans to respond. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

January 31, 2017, Clarkston - Amina Osman, with the International Community Outreach & Information Services, speaks at the podium during a special session of the Clarkston City Council in Clarkston, Georgia, on Tuesday, January 31, 2017. The session is taking place to discuss president Donald Trump’s recent executive orders and how the city of Clarkston plans to respond. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Bill Mehlinger was nearly forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down his Clarkston grocery store within a few years of buying the shop in 1990. His Thriftown just wasn’t busy enough. That was until the former Winn-Dixie manager started paying closer attention to the ethnic foods immigrants and refugees were hunting in his tiny DeKalb County town.

A Kansas native with an adopted southern accent, Mehlinger began stocking his shelves with international goods, including hubcap-shaped Bosnian bread called lepinja, cassava leaves used in Congolese stew and fish sauce, a key ingredient in many Asian dishes. Business has tripled, and he has ambitious plans to renovate his thriving 16,000-square-foot store and add a new seafood counter.

But he is worried all that could be slowed by the very man he voted for president: Donald Trump. Mehlinger voted for Trump because he liked the Republican's emphasis on boosting the economy. The grocer worries, however, about the sweeping travel ban Trump is seeking to impose on the same types of people who frequent his store: immigrants and refugees.

Trump’s order, signed Friday, suspends all refugee entries for 120 days.

A three-judge panel late Thursday kept in place a stay on Trump's temporary ban. But the matter is far from resolved and will almost certainly end up being decided by the nation's highest court. Already, the executive order has created chaos and confusion at airports and sparked multiple protests and lawsuits.

Nowhere in Georgia is the impact being felt more than in Clarkston. Just 1.4 square miles, Clarkston is home to about 12,000 residents, nearly half of whom are foreign-born. Because of its affordable housing, plentiful jobs and proximity to Atlanta, the town has been attracting immigrants and refugees from around the world for decades.

Trump won Georgia in November and polls show voters support the tough immigration controls the Republican campaigned on. But Clarkston — nicknamed the Ellis Island of the South — is home to people from several of the Muslim-majority countries covered in Trump's travel ban. Sixty languages are spoken there. Some residents warn Trump's ban could have unintended consequences. The people his decree targets are buying houses, creating businesses and paying taxes here. The directive would also bar many travelers who spend tourist dollars in U.S. restaurants, shops and hotels.

“I think it will hurt my business, if there are not as many of them coming in,” Mehlinger, the grocery owner, said. “It would be tough on us.”

Clarkston’s origins can be traced back to the 1830s, when a railroad was built through the area. Still bisected by train tracks, it is sprinkled with working-class neighborhoods, immigrant-run businesses and multiethnic places of worship, including a mosque.

On Jan. 27, Trump signed an order barring people from seven countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Aimed at preventing terrorism in the U.S, the order also bars any refugees from resettling here for 120 days and it indefinitely blocks Syrian refugees from coming here. Further, it caps the number of any refugees who could be resettled in the U.S. this fiscal year at 50,000, down from the 110,000 ceiling set by the Obama administration.

On Wednesday, Trump lashed out after a federal appeals court in San Francisco heard arguments over whether his travel ban should be allowed to resume. A lower court in Seattle temporarily placed it on hold after Washington and Minnesota argued it is unconstitutional — they say it violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion by disfavoring Muslims — and that it is hurting their economics and separating families. Trump has denied his order amounts to a “Muslim ban.”

“SEE YOU IN COURT,” Trump tweeted after Thursday’s decision was handed down. “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

Clarkston weighs in

Clarkston's leaders were so alarmed by Trump's executive order that they scrambled to hold a special meeting about it just days after it went into effect. So many people showed up for the gathering at City Hall — a low-slung tan brick building with dark brown trim — that the City Council chamber started overflowing. The visitors quietly took their seats and trained their eyes on the council's dais, where a golden seal proudly declares "Small Town. Big Heart."

Mayor Ted Terry spoke first. Just 33, he’s a progressive mayor with a long, pointy beard and a haircut kept close on the sides and long on top.

“We as a nation can and should take in more refugees, not less. And we will be stronger because of it,” said Terry, who previously served as then-Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow’s finance director and now leads the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “These new Americans are brave. They have an extreme motivation to work hard, stay out of trouble and contribute to the overall economy and prosperity of Clarkston and America.”

The council then heard from Frances McBrayer, who leads an Atlanta area coalition of refugee service agencies. Hundreds of Clarkston area apartments could go unrented under the travel ban, she told the council, and there would be many fewer refugees coming to fill jobs in the region. Her coalition estimates it spent $3 million on rent and utilities for refugees in Georgia last fiscal year.

“What we do know is that this most likely will mean that families will be separated and they will be separated for an indefinite period of time,” said McBrayer, a senior program director for refugee resettlement services at Catholic Charities Atlanta. “We are very concerned about that as resettlement agencies as we all have clients and staff who are really heartbroken about waiting for families to arrive.”

But the travel ban has other implications for Georgia and the nation’s tourism and hospitality industries, especially the parts targeting visitors from the seven predominantly Muslim countries, said Jeff Humphreys, an economist who directs the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

“That is probably going to dwarf the refugee spending impact actually — the impact on hospitality and tourism, even on students attending institutions of higher education,” Humphreys said in a telephone interview. “That is a loss both to the national economy and to the local economies where those dollars are spent.”

After McBrayer spoke to Clarkston’s City Council, it was the public’s turn to weigh. Immigrants and refugees from Bhutan, Iraq and Sudan spoke. None of them endorsed the ban and none of them were focused on the economy. Instead, they sought to profess their love for America and highlight the contributions made by refugees and immigrants as well as their new home’s tradition of welcoming newcomers.

Hassan Alnuaimi, a native of Iraq who now lives in Clarkston, spoke last. Wearing a crisp gray suit and striped tie, he said he worked with the U.S. military in his native country and would be the first to fight any terrorists seeking to harm his new home “because this is my country now.”

“I love this nation, honestly,” he said. “I love these people. They have helped me. They have helped my family. They support my children. The refugees are the first people to defend this country. God bless you all.”

The large crowd erupted in applause.

The Abyssinia Café

The council meeting was over and it was dark outside. The mayor was hungry, so he drove across the train tracks to one of his favorite Clarkston restaurants, the Abyssinia Café. It’s an Ethiopian restaurant run by a refugee, Eskinder “Alex” Tsegaye. CNN was on mute on the big flat screen TV hanging on the café’s back wall. Perhaps fittingly, the Commodores hit song “Nightshift” was playing softly in the background. A lone green lamp cast a pale light behind the restaurant’s long bar.

A waitress brought out a colorful platter of lentil and chickpea curries along with a bowl of injera, or spongy flat bread, to sop it up. Tsegaye came to the table to chat. Soft-spoken and friendly, he started out washing dishes at a Wendy’s chain restaurant for $3.15 an hour after he first arrived in the U.S. Now he owns his the café and pays city, state and federal taxes. Like other Clarkston businessmen, he worries how the travel ban could affect his bottom line.

“It’s sad to block people who are really desperate,” he said of fellow refugees.

Tsegaye’s café sits in the same shopping enter as Mehlinger’s grocery store. Lined with white columns and topped with a green roof and dormers, the strip mall also features a popular South Asian restaurant called Katmandu Kitchen & Grill and several other ethnic businesses buzzing with activity.

Mehlinger has made friends with Tsegaye and the other entrepreneurs in the shopping center as well as the customers who frequent it. Of the 48 people Mehlinger employs, most of them are refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan and Syria. He has been to many of his employees’ weddings. He knows their children. And he has watched them go off to college; become professionals in the fields of accounting, marketing and healthcare; and move away, buying homes outside of Clarkston. But they still come back to his store.

“I’m not afraid of refugees. I am not uncomfortable around them,” he said. “I admire them. They are not coming here for a free ride.”