For decades Georgia has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing violent persecution in war-torn countries.
They have come from Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and many other countries.
But since last year, Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration has been asking the federal government to substantially cut the numbers coming to Georgia, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. State officials are citing state and local taxpayer costs associated with taking in the refugees, school budget shortfalls and other concerns.
Critics counter that Georgia has it backwards. They say the private agencies that help resettle refugees attract millions of dollars in federal funding and private contributions, creating a net gain for Georgia. They add that refugees – who are given legal status when they come to the U.S. — quickly become self-sufficient, pay taxes and start businesses here.
Georgia started asking for fewer refugees a year after Deal signed into law legislation aimed at driving illegal immigrants out of the state. Critics said they see an ideological pattern of hostility to immigrants. State officials denied a connection, saying they want to be more involved in deciding where the refugees are resettled.
Following Georgia’s requests, the U.S. State Department reduced the number of refugees projected to be resettled in Georgia by more than 20 percent for this fiscal year, from the 3,520 proposed by resettlement agencies to 2,798. However, that would represent an 8 percent increase over the 2,582 refugees – including Iraqis on special immigrant visas — who resettled in Georgia last fiscal year.
Georgia now ranks seventh among states for the number of refugees it has taken in over the last six years, with a total of 16,090, according to an AJC analysis of public records. That hews closely to Georgia’s ninth-place ranking for total population.
The vast majority of the refugees have resettled in the Atlanta area, mostly in DeKalb County.
Among them is Aden Hussein, who, came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 1993. He obtained his U.S citizenship and now owns Halal Pizza and Cafe just south of Clarkston in DeKalb. It is located in a strip mall nicknamed “Little Somalia” for the dozens of Somali refugees who have opened businesses there.
Hussein’s restaurant sells pizza and cheeseburgers along with traditional Somali food, including sambusas, triangle-shaped pastries stuffed with meat. He employs six workers, buys his supplies from DeKalb stores and pays local, state and federal taxes.
He said Georgia shouldn’t overlook the contributions he and other refugees make. “They don’t know the facts,” he said. “We believe we are contributing economically and socially. We are part of the community.”
But state and local officials say it is in the best interest of refugees as well as the wider public to limit the flow of newcomers to a more manageable level.
“We asked the State Department to slow down the influx of refugees to Georgia so that we could more productively assimilate the ones who are here, look at their housing needs, the language needs in the schools, etcetera,” said Clyde Reese, Georgia’s Human Services commissioner.
Clarkston Mayor Emanuel Ransom said he has also asked the federal government to reduce the number of refugees settling in his city. He said he welcomes refugees but said they are straining the city’s resources. Ransom said the city needs time to rehabilitate its aging housing and create more jobs for refugees, so they will remain in Clarkston and help its economy grow.
Public records show that of all the refugees who have come to Georgia since 2007, nearly 15 percent – or 2,311 – have arrived in Clarkston, a tiny city near Interstate-285 and Stone Mountain Highway.
To resettle in the U.S. refugees must first demonstrate they were persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group. They are given health screenings to ensure they don’t bring contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, into the U.S.
Federal and state agencies work with private resettlement organizations, which determine where refugees should be located. Factors include where relatives reside and the availability of jobs, affordable housing, public transportation, English classes and interpreters.
The federal government provides refugees with funding that partially covers the cost of rent, furniture, food and clothing. Private contributions supplement that funding. Refugees may work in the U.S. They are required to apply for permanent residency after a year and are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after five years.
Georgia’s Department of Human Services — which distributes federal funding to resettlement agencies — estimated it cost $6.7 million in state and local taxpayer funds to support refugees in fiscal year 2011. That figure includes Georgia’s share of costs for public schools, childcare and other expenses.
The state’s estimate does not reflect taxes paid by refugees and the businesses they have created. A state report also shows the federal government kicked in $10.2 million for refugees during the same time frame.
State officials sent the federal government an email in August, requesting fewer refugees. Reese confirmed he told State Department officials in a meeting here last month that Georgia’s position had not changed. Asked for comment, a spokesman for the governor said Reese would speak for Deal’s administration on this issue.
Several aid groups said they no longer settle refugees in Clarkston when they have no family ties there. Lawrence Bartlett director of the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Admissions Office, said Lutheran Services of Georgia started resettling some refugees in Savannah rather than Atlanta last year.
Nevertheless, the Atlanta area is ideal for refugees, aid groups say, because of its abundance of affordable housing, public transportation and jobs. Plus, they said, many refugees have relatives who have already resettled here.
“Refugee resettlement is a lifesaving humanitarian program for refugees who have been in harm’s way and who are unable to return to their home country in safety,” said Ellen Beattie, regional director of U.S. programs for the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle refugees in Georgia. “And they have nowhere else to go.”