Georgia won’t process benefits applications for new Syrian refugees

A Georgia official said Thursday the state will not process applications for food stamps and other benefits filed by newly arrived Syrian refugees, possibly setting up a legal showdown.

“We are just going to follow that process as outlined,” Ravae Graham, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services, said in referring to a Nov. 18 memo that outlines her agency’s policy refusing benefits to new refugees from the war-torn country.

A Syrian refugee family of three arrived in the Atlanta area recently and applied for food stamps and Medicaid on Thursday of last week. Mohammad and his wife Ebtesam — who asked that their last names not be published to protect relatives still living in Syria — have not heard whether their applications for themselves and their four-year-old son Hasan would be processed, said Joshua Sieweke, the Atlanta office director for World Relief, which is helping them resettle in the Atlanta area. Graham declined to comment on their specific applications Thursday, citing privacy reasons.

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal joined more than two dozen of his counterparts in moving to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. They have raised security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13. Under pressure to do more as Syria’s four-year-old civil war rages on, President Barack Obama is pledging the U.S. will take in 10,000 refugees from that country over the next year.

Georgia’s policy has triggered a sharp warning from the Obama administration, which told the state last month it must rescind its order to comply with federal law. Georgia could be making itself vulnerable to a federal equal protection lawsuit by denying help to Syrian refugees while aiding others, said Stephen Legomsky, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Deal has indicated his administration is bracing for a legal battle if the federal government or civil rights groups challenge his policy in court.

“We’re ready to defend it if we have to. I’d rather not spend taxpayer money defending something that can be avoided,” he said this week. “I just don’t know why the federal government wants to do this behind closed doors in total secrecy, and don’t even trust state leaders charged with the security of our states with basic knowledge.”

Meanwhile, World Relief and dozens of volunteers from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta are helping the newly arrived Syrian family cover their expenses, learn English and fit in. The church has drawn a mixture of praise and criticism since The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday that it is assisting the family.

On Thursday morning, Jim and Jeanne Slaughenhoup, Johnson Ferry volunteers, showed Mohammad and Ebtesam how to count U.S. money and then they went on a shopping trip with them to a local grocery store. The Slaughenhoup couple cited how the Bible teaches people to care for the needy, including refugees.

“We love these people,” Jeanne Slaughenhoup said as she let Hasan watch a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon on her cell phone. “We have great compassion for them.

Sitting in his family’s apartment furnished by the church, Mohammad said he was grateful for the Johnson Ferry volunteers’ help.

“They stand next to us and have helped us unconditionally,” he said through an Arabic interpreter. “We are so happy and proud.”