Georgia AG: State cannot block Syrian refugees

Gov. Nathan Deal has no legal authority to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia, the state’s top lawyer said in a formal opinion issued Wednesday.

The guidance from Attorney General Sam Olens undercuts an executive order Deal issued last month directing state agencies not to assist new Syrian refugees seeking benefits.

Deal had requested the legal guidance from his fellow Republican but it is unclear what he will do with it. A spokeswoman said Wednesday the governor is reviewing the opinion.

A Syrian refugee father and mother living with their 4-year-old son in the Atlanta area have been waiting for weeks for the state to process their applications for food stamps and Medicaid. They arrived in the state soon after Deal issued his executive order.

Advocates on Wednesday hailed the legal opinion.

“Nathan Deal is abusing the law, but we are nation of laws where the law is above everyone,” said Asad Altabchi, a Syrian-American from Newnan who is coordinating efforts to help resettle Syrian refugees in the Atlanta area. “I always have a faith in this country and in our justice system.”

Since the terror attacks in Paris, Deal has been highly critical of the Obama administration plan to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees nationwide. He has bristled at the White House’s demand that Georgia rescind the order denying food stamps to new Syrian refugees. The governor has also vowed that the state will vigorously defend his stance in court. Polls show broad support among Republican voters for Deal’s position.

But Olens’ opinion suggested the state lacks firm legal footing to battle Washington on the matter.

Olens wrote that he is “unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program, no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be.”

As a matter of federal law, states do not have any authority to unilaterally interfere in congressionally authorized federal immigration programs, Olens wrote. Additionally, he said, the state entered into a formal agreement with the federal government to operate the refugee resettlement program, which includes federally funded benefit programs.

“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 said.

Syria’s four-year-old civil war has killed 250,000 people and displaced 12 million, according to the United Nations. Since the fighting began in 2011, 69 Syrian refugees have resettled in Georgia. Sixty of them relocated to the state – specifically Atlanta and Stone Mountain – this year. Nine came last year. New American Pathways, an Atlanta-area refugee resettlement organization, has helped many of them resettle in Georgia.

“We are pleased with Sam Olens’ legal opinion and hopeful that we will soon see the resumption of federal food and medical benefits for Syrian refugee families in Georgia,” said Paedia Mixon, the organization’s CEO.

Olens’ concerns come as little surprise. In an email obtained through a public records request earlier this month, Olens wrote to a Deal deputy that Georgia’s response to the federal threat of a lawsuit over the policy “is not well-supported in the law.” Olens added that he was hopeful “every effort is made to resolve this matter without resort to litigation.”

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, more than half the nation’s governors said they opposed letting additional Syrian refugees into their states. The Islamic State — which has claimed responsibility for the deadly assaults — has its stronghold in Syria, and the governors expressed doubts that the United States could properly screen out would-be-terrorists. U.S. State Department officials say refugees undergo a rigorous vetting process that often takes two years.

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