On the same day Gov. Nathan Deal announced he would oppose federal efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in Georgia, a note from the White House landed in the inbox of the state’s social services department: a request to allow hundreds more refugees coming from any nation, not just Syria, to move into Georgia.
And on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned a state agency it was violating federal law by refusing to process applications for food stamps for Syrian refugees already in Georgia, raising the specter of a legal showdown over the policy.
The developments underline the sharpening tension in Georgia pitting leaders who raise concerns about strained state resources and national security against the Obama administration’s contention that embracing refugees is a fundamental part of the nation’s DNA.
The governor has since 2012 demanded that federal authorities limit the overall number of refugees resettled in Georgia, citing the strain on local schools, health care facilities and other social services.
But the divide has only grown in the aftermath of this month’s deadly string of terror attacks in Paris, which prompted Deal and more than half the nation’s governors to oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to allow 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria into the country over the next year.
Deal, who signed an executive order last week instructing state agencies to halt any involvement in resettling Syrian refugees, said he is concerned the federal government cannot weed out migrants who pose a terrorist threat. Obama and his allies say it’s the nation’s duty to help people escaping a bloody civil war.
“There have been times in our history, in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals, and it has been to our lasting regret,” Obama said at a Tuesday press conference. “We must uphold our ideals now.”
Hours after Deal announced his opposition to resettling refugees here, an analyst with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement projected that Georgia could accept 3,470 additional refugees in the next year — hundreds more than Georgia initially planned to expect.
“Please let them know that Georgia will not accept any more,” David Werner, the state’s chief operating officer, wrote to Department of Human Services Commissioner Robyn Crittenden in an email obtained through an open records request.
The next day, the state’s refugee coordinator told the federal agency that Georgia wanted to cap the total number of refugees for the next year at 2,800. The federal agency did not return requests for comment. But Atlanta-area refugee resettlement organizations have been critical of Deal’s position.
“When the federal government increased the ceiling to 85,000, the Atlanta Office of World Relief was eager to help by raising our number from 665 to 850,” Joshua Sieweke, the Atlanta office director for World Relief, said in an email. “We have great confidence in our network of churches and their desire to care for those fleeing persecution. Unfortunately, the state would not approve an increase of any size, which is disappointing. Refugees have thrived in Georgia, and we would have loved to see more of them experience the blessings of this great state.”
A federal warning
A legal battle may be brewing, meanwhile, over Deal’s decision to order state agencies not to process any paperwork involving new Syrian refugees.
The Georgia Department of Human Services, which administers food stamp benefits, issued a memorandum last week after Deal issued the directive that orders its employees not to process the applications of Syrian refugees who are resettled in Georgia after Nov. 16.
Jessica Shahin of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program urged the state to “rescind this memorandum and cease this practice immediately” or risk violating the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008.
“As long as an applicant submits a SNAP application that includes the applicant’s name, address and signature, the state agency must accept and process the application to be in compliance with federal law,” she said.
The Department of Human Services declined to comment.
The flow of refugees to Georgia has ebbed since Deal took office, dropping from more than 3,200 in 2010 to 2,896 over the past year, according to state records.
Nearly 30,000 refugees have resettled in Georgia since 2004, with the largest number coming from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq. Those numbers include at least 66 Syrian refugees who have come to the U.S. since violence erupted there in 2011, with six arriving since October.
But the prospect of welcoming more Syrians has divided Americans after the Paris attacks. Several outlets reported that one of the Paris attackers traveled to France from Syria by posing as a refugee, leading many Republicans and some Democrats to question whether the U.S. government can ensure refugees from Syria don’t have a more devious plot.
Several national polls show a majority of Americans are against admitting Syrian refugees, and most Republican presidential candidates have called for an immediate end to the program. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has criticized Republicans for “inflammatory talk” and called on the U.S. to take in 65,000 Syrian refugees.
It’s also led to a wave of rhetoric from governors and other state officials vowing to defy the federal government even though they have limited authority to do so. Deal acknowledged that he has little power to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Georgia, but he’s ordered state agencies to avoid filing any paperwork or offering any help to resettle them.
“While we have empathy for the hardships that innocent Syrian people face,” he wrote in a letter to Obama, “the terrorist attacks in Paris raise a need for additional scrutiny of those claiming refugee status.”
The opposition came after tremendous pressure from Deal’s Republican base to oppose the policy. The governor’s office was flooded with hundreds of emails and phone calls urging him to echo about a dozen other Republican governors who publicly spoke out against allowing Syrian refugees before Deal made his intentions public on Nov. 16.
State Sen. Mike Dugan said in an email to Deal’s office that he was “inundated” with questions about the governor’s stance, and several other Republican lawmakers reported that they were besieged by calls, social media requests and messages that urged Deal to try to block the Syrian refugees from setting foot in Georgia.
“I have assured my constituents that your interests are to protect Georgia and that I am contacting you to let their, and my, views be known,” wrote state Rep. Jeff Jones, a Brunswick Republican.
Others, though, dismissed the state’s position as “politics.”
Asad Altabchi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Syria who now lives in Newnan, came here on a work visa 15 years ago and now owns an underground tank inspection company. He and other Syrian-Americans have been donating their time and money to help recently arrived refugees learn English, find work and get clothes, furniture and used cars.
“First of all, I think this is amoral, you see, because we are punishing the innocent people,” Altabchi said of efforts to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia. “If someone did the crime, you don’t go punish his neighborhood.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.