Georgia governor retreats on Syria refugee policy

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

Syrian refugees in Georgia

Since the fighting in Syria began in 2011, 69 Syrian refugees have resettled in Georgia — including 60 who relocated to the state in 2015. They mainly relocate to Stone Mountain and other metro Atlanta cities.

Gov. Nathan Deal retreated on Monday from an order he signed weeks ago that tried to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia, relenting after the state’s top lawyer concluded he had no legal power to stop them from coming.

The reversal comes five days after Attorney General Sam Olens issued a formal opinion that undercut Deal’s position and opened a divide between two of the state’s top Republicans. It also cleared the way for new arrivals from Syria to receive public assistance benefits.

The withdrawal, detailed only in a one-sentence order, is a jarring turnabout for the governor. Deal had carved out one of the nation's more aggressive stances against the White House's plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. over the next year.

He ordered state employees not to process any paperwork involving refugees from the war-torn nation, and he demanded that the White House share more details about the resettlement process. When faced with the threat of a lawsuit from the Obama administration, Deal vowed to defend the policy in court.

"When they don't tell you who they are sending, they don't tell you where they are sending them, and they don't tell you where they are, it's more difficult for the state to be prepared," Deal said in a December interview. "They expect the states to simply close their eyes and pretend there's no problem. I'm not satisfied with that."

The Olens opinion, though, concluded that a legal battle would have been hopeless. He wrote that he's not aware of any law or agreement that would allow Georgia to bar refugees from particular countries "no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be."

“Accordingly, it is my official opinion that both federal law and the state’s agreement to act as the state refugee resettlement coordinator prevent the state from denying federally funded benefits to Syrian refugees lawfully admitted into the United States,” he wrote.

Democrats and refugee advocates painted Deal’s order as political pandering since the moment he signed it in November, joining more than two dozen other Republican governors who raised concerns about Syrian refugees in the wake of the deadly terror attacks in Paris.

And legal scholars said the move was purely symbolic, noting that the state was powerless to block Syrian refugees because the federal government has the final say over immigration policy.

As if to underscore their point, a family of three arrived in metro Atlanta from Syria shortly after Deal signed the order. State officials approved their application for food stamps and Medicaid benefits late Monday after weeks of limbo, said Joshua Sieweke of the Atlanta office of World Relief.

“I’m thankful we have finally gotten to this point,” he said. “What I am most thankful for is this clears the way for the family’s welcome to be complete.”

State health officials sent a memo to employees shortly after Deal’s order Monday instructing them to “resume processing applications for benefit assistance to Syrian refugees.”

Since the fighting in Syria began in 2011, 69 Syrian refugees have resettled in Georgia — including 60 who relocated to the state last year. They are escaping a 4-year-old civil war in Syria that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced an additional 12 million.

Scrutiny of the program escalated after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Deal and other governors said they had little confidence that the U.S. could screen out would-be terrorists from Syria, the terror group’s stronghold.

State Department officials, meanwhile, point to a rigorous vetting process for refugees that often takes two years. And Obama plans to host a summit at next year’s United Nations General Assembly to encourage countries to do more to help the Syrian refugees and others displaced by war.

The governor’s critics mocked his opposition to the resettlement program in the first place. Michael Smith of the Democratic Party of Georgia called the order “a bombastic partisan stunt full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The mayor of Clarkston, a main refugee resettlement site, said he was glad Deal cast aside the “political rhetoric.”

“I look forward to a more inclusive conversation with the governor on policy solutions to keep the homeland safe from attack,” said Ted Terry, the DeKalb County city’s mayor. “We must better coordinate with city, county, state and federal law enforcement chiefs toward a 21st century community policing model.”