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,” Deal 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 U.S. Constitution has provided that control over immigration and deportation matters rests with the federal government. There are major court decisions confirming that the states cannot pre-empt that authority.
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 passed legislation that increased hurdles for the entry of Syrian refugees by a veto-proof margin, a measure the Senate will take up likely after Thanksgiving.
Even if Congress somehow resolves the issue with Obama, the refugee question will be loudly debated throughout 2016 as part of the presidential campaigns.
How much should citizens actually be worrying about this?
There is already a long and rigorous screening process in place for those who end up coming to the United States. 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, which may or may not be the U.S.
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, a process that includes name and background checks, document reviews and fingerprinting.
It takes an average of 18 to 24 months to complete the process of verifying a refugee’s application, which means that the people who are fleeing Syria now probably couldn’t get their paperwork cleared for resettlement in the U.S. until 2017, at the earliest.
Ground zero for refugees who come to Georgia is Clarkston, a DeKalb County municipality where so many refugees have been sent that roughly half its population is estimated to be foreign-born. If any Syrian refugees should be resettled in Georgia, 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 an international community that includes people from such locales as Burma, Bhutan, the Congo, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“Clarkston’s been resettling Muslims (from several countries) 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 refugees who are sent to Clarkston are more interested in making a living for their family than in making trouble, he contended.
“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. “They really are a net benefit to our community.”
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.
“The governor really should be commended for the stellar job that his department has done with refugee resettlement,” Terry said. But he does disagree with Deal 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.”
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.