Refugee Jerome Baziruwiha from the Congo, who resettled and is working as a baker in Clarkston, Ga., greets Catholic Charities’ Katie Walker, right, at a State Capitol breakfast event to highlight the benefits refugees bring to Georgia, on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Atlanta. David Tulis / AJC Special
Photo: David Tulis
Photo: David Tulis

Limits placed on refugees coming to Georgia

The federal government is placing new limits on the number of refugees being resettled in Georgia, following requests from Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration for sharp cuts, public records show.

State officials started asking for reductions in 2012, citing worries that refugees are straining taxpayer-funded resources, including public schools.

Alarmed by the state’s position, resettlement agencies are publicly highlighting the economic benefits refugees bring. The agencies say refugees create a net gain by working, creating businesses, paying taxes and attracting more federal and private aid money than what the state and local governments spend on services.

This tension comes as the federal government is preparing to welcome thousands of Syrian civil war refugees. Most are expected to begin arriving in 2015 and 2016. Some will likely come to Georgia eventually, though there are no estimates yet.

In the fiscal year ending in September, Georgia received 2,710 refugees from around the world. That is up 8 percent from the year before. But it is 810 fewer people than originally proposed by resettlement agencies.

The U.S. State Department confirmed it limited the number of refugees coming to Georgia, based partly on the state’s requests. But the federal agency highlighted other factors that could have affected how many ultimately came to Georgia, including delays in screening refugees for resettlement.

In July, Deal’s administration asked the federal government to keep the same limits in place for this fiscal year, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And the federal government is sticking to roughly the same range.

The majority of the refugees coming to Georgia are from Bhutan, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia. Most are being resettled in the Atlanta area, particularly in DeKalb County and especially in Clarkston. To come here, they must 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.

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, child care 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.

Jerome Baziruwiha fled violence in Congo and resettled as a refugee in Georgia in 2012. He rents a home in Clarkston for his wife and six children, pays for utilities and works at a local bakery. He is starting a Pentecostal church and wants to return to the profession he left in Congo — nursing — as soon as he learns more English. Baziruwiha said he and his family were often forced to hide from violent rebels in Congo.

“I sleep very well” now, said Baziruwiha, who has a green card and hopes to become a U.S. citizen. “I am not scared of anything. I am happy now.”

Over the past three fiscal years, 7,866 refugees have been resettled in Georgia. During that same time frame, 184,589 were resettled nationwide. Georgia ranked eighth among states in the past fiscal year, according to an AJC analysis of pubic records. That hews closely to Georgia’s ninth-place ranking for total population.

“Georgia has been a welcoming home for many refugees, but the program does pose some challenges for the state,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor. “We’re willing to do our part, but we want to make sure we’re not taking more than our fair share.”

Nonprofit agencies and several Democratic state lawmakers gathered this month at the state Capitol to highlight the benefits refugees bring to Georgia. For example, 80 percent of refugee households in Georgia begin working and paying their own expenses within six months of arrival, the highest self-sufficiency rate in the nation, according to the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies. Last year, according to the coalition, private service agencies helped 2,247 refugees get jobs in Georgia with an average hourly wage of $8.65.

Those agencies also spent $3.1 million in 2012 at Atlanta-area businesses, helped refugees rent 555 vacant apartments in Clarkston in 2011 and spent nearly $800,000 on MARTA between 2008 and 2012. Refugees make up only a tiny fraction of the students in local school systems, and they attract millions of dollars in funding from private and federal sources, according to the coalition.

J.D. McCrary, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, called the state’s actions “unfortunate.” He and other advocates said Georgia — a state of more than 9 million people — could successfully resettle as many as 4,000 refugees each year.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about refugees,” he said. “Refugees are very much a social, cultural and economic boon to Georgia. And there is a direct economic benefit to resettling refugees.”

McCrary’s organization has been calling on the federal government to welcome 12,000 of Syria’s 2.3 million refugees this year, plus 3,000 more next year. Only about 100 have been resettled in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war began. And none of them were brought to Georgia. But the federal government is expecting to begin receiving thousands of referrals from the United Nations this year to resettle Syrians in the U.S.

“The situation in Syria is a humanitarian crisis — an absolute humanitarian disaster — affecting the lives of millions of people who have been forced to flee Syria due to a well-founded fear of persecution,” McCrary said. “They literally are running for their lives into their neighboring countries.”

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.