Athens mayor seeks delay in settlement of refugees

Mayor Nancy Denson is seeking to put the brakes on plans to resettle 150 refugees in Athens-Clarke County in the coming months, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In a letter to Georgia officials this week, the Democratic mayor complained that the International Rescue Committee did not reach out to enough people in her community early enough about its plans. She also raised concerns that the refugees could strain public resources in Athens-Clarke County, which is home to about 120,000 residents.

The IRC has proposed resettling refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar and Syria in the region. Denson said she wants the IRC to delay its efforts and to “present a formal refugee integration plan” to local elected officials and others.

“Serving refugees will add a burden to local charitable and other public resources, including safety net services,” Denson wrote Monday to Michael Singleton, Georgia’s state refugee coordinator. “Refugee students may also place an inordinate service burden on the school district due to limited English proficiency by the students and their parents.”

A spokeswoman for Georgia’s Human Services Department said Wednesday that the state agency is working on a response to the mayor’s letter.

J.D. McCrary, the executive director of the IRC in Atlanta, said in an email Wednesday that his organization “has been actively engaging in public outreach in the Athens-Clarke County area.”

“Several meeting requests were made to Mayor Denson’s office over the past ten months,” McCrary wrote, “but it was not until July of this year that her office agreed to meet.”

McCrary said in the email that “hundreds of refugees” already live in the area and that Clarke County’s school system “provides an exceptional education to students who speak over 40 different languages.”

“The refugees to be resettled in the district speak languages the district is already serving,” McCrary said, and the IRC has consulted with the school system’s superintendent “to ensure the enrollment process and ongoing educational needs of the students are met.”

The number of refugees coming to Georgia has been a source of controversy in recent years. Following requests from Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration for sharp cuts, the federal government has placed new limits on the number of refugees being resettled in Georgia. State officials started asking for reductions in 2012, citing worries that refugees are straining taxpayer-funded resources, including public schools.

Alarmed by the state’s position, resettlement agencies have been highlighting the economic benefits refugees bring. The agencies say refugees create a net gain for the state by working and paying taxes and attracting millions of dollars in federal aid to Georgia. Many have created businesses in the Atlanta area. Further, 80 percent of refugee households in Georgia begin working and paying their own expenses within six months of arrival, the highest self-sufficiency rate in the nation, according to the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies.