Rift opens between Georgia’s Republican leaders over Syrian refugees

A divide has opened among Georgia’s Republican leaders over Gov. Nathan Deal’s opposition to admitting Syrian refugees, as the state hurtles toward a likely legal showdown over the policy.

Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Deal and the state’s top lawyer, Republican Attorney General Sam Olens, are at odds over the legality of the governor’s executive order directing state agencies to halt involvement in resettling Syrian refugees.

The rift is significant because, faced with the threat of a federal challenge, the Deal administration has doubled down on its decision to withhold state food stamp benefits for newly arrived refugees from the war-torn nation.

And it will fall to Olens, who has publicly agreed with Deal on virtually every other major stance, to defend the policy in court.

In an email obtained through a public records request filed by the AJC, Olens wrote to a Deal deputy on Friday that Georgia’s response to the threat of a federal lawsuit over the policy “is not well supported in the law.” Olens added that he’s hopeful “every effort is made to resolve this matter without resort to litigation.”

Deal responded on Monday by requesting a formal opinion from Olens on the legality of the executive order, which polls show has broad support among Republican voters. For Olens, who declined comment on Monday, it was a departure from a pattern of agreeing with Deal over key issues, including challenges to President Barack Obama’s healthcare law and his energy policy.

The tiff highlighted Deal’s increasingly antagonistic approach to Obama’s plan to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees nationwide since the string of terror attacks in Paris.

The governor has vowed that the state will vigorously defend his stance in court and bristled at the White House’s demand in November that Georgia rescind the order or risk violating federal law by denying food stamp benefits to new Syrian refugees.

In a response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture letter sent last week, the Deal administration said it would not take back the directive.

“Recent events and the decision by the Obama administration not to honor Gov. Deal’s request have, in his view, made his order necessary in order to protect the people he serves,” wrote Bobby Cagle, who heads the Division of Family and Child Services, which administers Georgia’s food stamp program.

Olens said in the email to Cagle that he worried the state’s stance could have “negatively impacted” a settlement agreement Georgia reached with food stamp recipients who claimed their applications weren’t filed on a timely basis. Other critics, including advocates for refugees, say it’s discriminatory and short-sighted.

Despite the political rhetoric, Deal has also had to come to terms with the reality that states are powerless to stop that resettlement process, which is overseen by the federal government. As if to underscore that point, another Syrian family arrived in Georgia last week, becoming the first to relocate here since Deal vowed to halt their resettlement.

“I read the article in the paper this morning,” Deal said Friday. “Isn’t it ironic that the United States government doesn’t see fit to tell the state of Georgia, doesn’t see fit to tell our Homeland Security official, who these people are and where they are? And the only way we know they are actually here is when they show up and ask for food stamps.”

The Syrian family has applied for food stamps. As of Monday afternoon, there was no word on whether state officials would process their application.

The director of an Atlanta nonprofit sent the state’s refugee coordinator notice of the Syrian family’s arrival on Dec. 1, but Deal’s office said it has not heard from the Obama administration over the refugees.

In the interview, Deal said 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. “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.”

Stephen Legomsky, the former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Deal’s actions raise “very serious constitutional questions.”

Legomsky, now a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said Georgia could be vulnerable to an equal protection lawsuit by denying help to Syrian refugees while aiding others. He also highlighted how the federal government — not the states — has authority over resettling refugees.

“Congress has legislated comprehensively on refugees and they have specifically delegated to the president the power to decide how many refugees we will accept each year and from which countries,” he said. “So this conflicts with a federal decision on immigration. And on top of all of that, immigration is one of those areas where the courts have consistently said this is an exclusively federal responsibility.”

The head of a local organization that has resettled dozens of Syrian refugees in the Atlanta area said she was glad the state seems to be reviewing the legality of the policy.

“It’s encouraging they are looking at and examining whether this is legal or not,” said Paedia Mixon, the CEO of New American Pathways. “I do feel like the resettlement agencies are sort of caught in the middle.”

The International Rescue Committee, another group that is resettling Syrian refugees in Georgia, on Monday called on Deal to “re-evaluate his decision to withhold services to any individual and rethink his divergence from the liberties entitled to us all under the Constitution.”

Deal, meanwhile, said he hasn’t ruled out launching his own legal challenge in hopes of blocking Syrian refugees from resettling in Georgia. Texas tried a similar maneuver last week before reversing course.

“If they keep prodding me, I might,” Deal said of the Obama administration. “And it appears they are willing to keep prodding. I’ve already told them if they don’t like the way we administer the food stamp program, if they don’t like the way we do it, let them come run it. We’ll handle it over to them.”

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