Opinion: Ga., U.S. should remain haven for persecuted people

World Refugee Day celebration in Clarkston.

World Refugee Day celebration in Clarkston.

“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

These are the words of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, when the country was facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. More than 100,000 Cuban exiles sought refuge at America’s southern shore, while mass emigration from Vietnam continued after the fall of Saigon.

We are now in the midst of a global humanitarian crisis of even greater proportions, with nearly 26 million men, women and children without safe homes due to war and persecution. Yet, the current administration claims that, this time, the United States is too overwhelmed to do its part, that our vast and prosperous country lacks the ability to welcome more than a tiny fraction of the people welcomed under President Reagan and every president since.

Historically, the United States has set an average refugee admissions goal of 95,000 people per year. Nearly half of the people that the government chooses to resettle here have endured torture and abuse for opposing corrupt or undemocratic regimes, practicing their faith, or refusing to participate in violent conflict — in other words, for supporting quintessentially American ideals.

The administration has announced it will slash refugee admissions to the lowest level in the history of the refugee program, to as low as 18,000 in FY 2020. This cruel and unnecessary decision is an abdication of our country’s role as a global humanitarian leader and a betrayal of fundamental American values and interests.

It is also bad for Georgia.

Georgians have embraced refugees for 40 years, in keeping with their strong faith traditions and humanitarian spirit. Our resettlement program is one of the most successful in the nation, thanks to tremendous support from our communities. Last year, nearly 6,000 volunteers from faith, business, school, and civic organizations donated 162,000 hours of service to refugee-serving agencies. Over the past five years, between 86% and 91% of refugees have been financially self-sufficient within six months of arrival to Georgia — among the highest rates in the country. They are the backbone of our state’s core industries, including manufacturing, poultry processing and hospitality, and significant contributors to our state’s tax coffers.

Georgia is now losing the resettlement infrastructure that makes our program, and our state, strong and it will take years to rebuild. Last month, one of the state’s oldest resettlement agencies, World Relief, was forced to shut down its resettlement program after decades of service, and other resettlement agencies are cutting back. Families promised resettlement in Georgia have had their flights canceled, and we expect more families to experience the same.

Now more than ever before, Georgians must stand together for the values we hold dear and remind our nation’s leaders that shutting America’s doors in a time of humanitarian crisis does not make us great. It makes us very small indeed.

Jim Neal, Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA), and Darlene Lynch, Business-Immigration Georgia (BIG) Partnership.