Gov. Nathan Deal was adamant when he signed an executive order declaring that no Syrian refugees will be allowed to set foot in Georgia.
“A series of synchronized terrorist attacks were carried out against the people of France, and those attacks appear to be directly linked to the ongoing conflict in Syria,” he said. Because of those attacks, no state agency “shall accept any refugees from Syria for resettlement,” said Deal—a stance taken by governors in several other states as well.
This was, of course, political bluster. Deal is a lawyer, and he surely knows that for more than 200 years, the Constitution has provided that control over immigration and deportation matters rests with the federal government.
At the federal level, the refugee issue has sparked a major confrontation between President Barack Obama, who had earlier said 10,000 Syrian refugees would be allowed to enter the country, and the members of Congress who don’t want to let them in. The House and Senate could pass legislation that would block the entry of Syrian refugees and attach it to a spending bill that has to pass to keep the federal government operating past December. That could put Obama in the position of being blamed for a government shutdown if he vetoed the anti-refugee measure. Even if Congress somehow resolves the issue, the refugee question will be loudly debated throughout 2016 as part of the presidential campaigns.
How much should we be worrying about this?
There is already a rigorous screening process for those who might come here. People who apply for refugee status initially go before the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which determines whether they qualify for that status and recommends the country where they could best be resettled. If the UNHCR does refer refugees to this country, they are vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. It takes an average of 18–24 months to complete the process of verifying an application, which means that the people who are fleeing Syria now probably couldn’t get their paperwork cleared until 2017, at the earliest.
Ground zero for refugees who come to Georgia is Clarkston, a municipality where so many refugees have been sent that roughly half its population is estimated to be foreign-born. If Syrian refugees are resettled here, this city just east of Atlanta is where they most likely would be placed.
Ted Terry, who works for the Georgia AFL-CIO, was elected mayor of Clarkston two years ago. He says there are about 100 Syrian refugees already living there, part of a community that includes people from such locales as Burma, Bhutan, the Congo, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“Clarkston’s been resettling Muslims for 35 years,” Terry said. “In 35 years of resettlement, we haven’t had one religiously motivated killing. There are no religious wars in Clarkston.
“The reality is, within six to eight months these people have jobs, their kids are in schools, they’re paying taxes, contributing to the community, in some cases they’re creating new businesses and creating more jobs,” Terry said.
Although Terry is a Democrat and Deal is a Republican, he said the governor has actually been very good about working with the city and resettlement officials in the past. But he does disagree about trying to impose a total ban on Syrian refugees.
“If we decide to take in more Syrian refugees, or more refugees from other parts of the world, Clarkston will do our part,” he said. “We’re a compassionate and welcoming city.”
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