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Real refugee resettlement

By Leon Galis

Recently in this space, Michael H. McLendon has been sounding an alarm over Athens having become a refugee resettlement site. My aim here isn’t to defend the program against Mr. McLendon’s indictment. That’s because he didn’t say enough about how the program works for me to form an opinion about it one way or the other. But that information vacuum didn’t keep a reader from jumping in with the belief that “the feds [are] relocating illegal immigrants to the community….”

That’s 100% not true. On the chance that some of Mr. McLendon’s several thousand readers are laboring under similar misapprehensions about refugee resettlement, all I’m going to offer here is a few hundred words (ok, several hundred) of scut work, describing what the federal government’s refugee resettlement program does. None of what I’ve dredged up is secret, esoteric knowledge. It’s available to anybody with an internet connection and some spare time. Since I have both, I thought I might be able to perform a modest public service by chasing down some of that information so you won’t have to.

As with any other issue of public concern, if we’re going to talk about this, it seems that the only productive approach is for us all to have the same basic understanding of what we’re talking about. If I get some of this stuff wrong, I hope readers will correct my errors, linking to their sources as I’m going to link to mine.

Starting at the beginning, the refugee resettlement program in this county is almost fifty years old. It was authorized by an amendment in 1980 to the Immigration and Nationality Act. It’s administered by the U. S. Departments of State, Health, and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

The people the program serves aren’t refugees just because they say they are. They haven’t entered the country by swimming across the Rio Grande or crawling through a hole in a chain link fence somewhere else along our borders. There are several paths into the program, but most people seeking resettlement as refugees register initially with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which determines whether they meet the international definition of a refugee. Registrants are people who’ve fled their home countries in fear for their safety. Some have been tortured or otherwise abused. They’ve taken shelter in another country, usually with temporary asylum, but are seeking permanent resettlement in a third country.

To be admitted to the United States under the refugee resettlement program, applicants undergo extensive screening, testing and one-on-one interviews at the hands of agencies like the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, and others. That can take from eighteen to thirty-six months before they arrive in the United States, so of all the paths to legal residency here this is the most challenging. But if they make the cut, they enter as legal residents. Within a year of arrival, they’re required to apply for green cards as permanent residents. After five years, they’re eligible to apply for U. S. citizenship.

The president in consultation with Congress sets an annual limit to the number of refugees who can enter the country as refugees eligible for resettlement. For 2022, the limit was 125,000. To give you an idea of the modest size of the program, that’s less than four hundredths of a percent of the current population of the country. Nor does that represent the number of refugees actually resettled. Historically, it’s been common for the number of refugees resettled to be fewer than the number authorized.

What readers will be more interested in is what happens to refugees once admitted to the country. The State Department partners with a group of non-profit organizations which assume the primary responsibility for launching the refugees on their new lives in America. There are five such organizations operating in Georgia, one of which is Bethany Christian Services. In 2018, the last year for which I have this information, the state hosting the most resettled refugees was Texas, not famous for tolerating so-called “sanctuary” cities.

Mr. McLendon touched on several sore points that we really need to get straight about. One is why Athens is a refugee resettlement site. Why didn’t our allocation of refugees go to, say, Macon or Bainbridge? According to a document from the Congressional Research Service, “As a general matter, refugees are not resettled in states that do not have any local affiliates [of the State Department’s non-profit partners] or in parts of states that do not have local affiliates within an allowable distance…...” In other words, Athens is a resettlement site in part because it’s in Atlanta-based Bethany Christian Services’ service area and Bainbridge isn’t.

Another sore point is the burden that this program imposes on host cities’ taxpayers. Again, as far as I can tell, the burden is negligible. Immigration, remember, is a federal responsibility, which is why the program is funded almost entirely by the federal government. The resettlement agencies provide additional support by soliciting donations and recruiting volunteers. But host cities aren’t required to provide funding for their resettlement programs.

Whatever you may think about the federal government generally, the people who designed this program don’t seem to have been brain dead. They knew that it would crash and burn if the refugees’ needs had to compete with a vast array of budget priorities in local governments all over the country. In Athens, our government does provide some modest financial support to a clutch of non-profit organizations offering a range of community services. It wouldn’t be a surprise if some of our resettled refugees found their way to some of those organizations. But if I understand the government’s FY24 budget, the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for any dedicated funding of the resettlement program as such.

Far from financing the refugees indefinitely, the overriding objective of the resettlement program is to equip its clients to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. To that end, they’re not just allowed, but are actively encouraged to find work and make their own way. In fact, the federal government doesn’t even pay their travel expenses to the United States. Rather, the government fronts the money to them as an interest free loan which they’re obligated to repay.

This brings me to a throbbing sore point at the center of Mr. McLendon’s brief. His account may give the impression that our local government had a veto over whether to be a resettlement site that Mayor Girtz, for nefarious reasons of his own, refused to exercise. Mr. McLendon recounts then Mayor Denson’s opposition to participating in the program as evidence that Girtz could’ve done the same.

I’m relying on what’s left of my memory here. I can’t always remember what happened twenty-four hours ago, but I remember distinctly a meeting arranged by then-Commissioner Kathy Hoard for me and one of my neighbors with Mayor Denson and the Director of Leisure Services. The subject was a proposed Greenway segment in my neighborhood.

Mayor Nancy Denson presiding over a 2017 meeting of the Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners

When we concluded our business and were just chatting for a while, Mayor Denson complained with some heat that she couldn’t just veto the initiative by officials in Atlanta or wherever they were to saddle us with a resettlement site. I don’t know what she told the decision makers then. Maybe it had something to do with her not being confident that Bethany Christian Services was up to the job.

But whatever she told them, cities are basically bystanders in this whole program, which doesn’t depend on their consent. We know that because in 2019 then President Trump issued Executive Order 13888, which required written consent of governors and local officials before refugees could be resettled in their jurisdictions. But that Executive Order was revoked in the early days of the Biden Administration.

There is a statutory requirement that the federal officials administering the assignment of refugees around the country “consult regularly with state and local governments and resettlement agencies about the intended distribution of refugees among the states and localities.” I have no idea what those consultations consist of, except that they don’t afford the states and localities a veto over site selection. It sounds more like a coordination exercise.

So what about the “smoking gun” letters that Mr. McLendon unearthed between Mayor Girtz and federal agencies involved in the creation of resettlement sites around the country. It’s important to notice that in neither of these letters did the mayor consent to or approve of the establishment of resettlement operations here. He didn’t do that because either would’ve been irrelevant under current federal law.

What were these letters about then? As I observed earlier, the people who administer these programs aren’t stupid. They’re not going to squander time and energy struggling to establish sites in municipalities that are either hostile to them or don’t have the resources in place to support them. So they require assurances to the contrary from a local official in a position to give them that a resettlement program there has a reasonable shot at success.

Mr. McLendon makes heavy weather of the fact that Mayor Girtz sent off his “To Whom it May Concern” letters without checking in with the Commission, the Attorney, the Manager and county residents in general. For all I know, neither did Mayor Denson do that when she notified the federal agencies involved that she couldn’t support a resettlement operation site here. Maybe I wasn’t plugged in at the time—a distinct possibly since I had another life—but the first I heard about the refugee resettlement program was at the meeting with Mayor Denson I alluded to earlier. I certainly don’t remember a community-wide discussion of the issue although there may have been one.

I’m just guessing here, but maybe the reason that Mayor Girtz didn’t devote an agenda item to any of this at a Commission meeting is that there was no budgetary or other formal action required by our local government in the matter. There were just some bureaucratic boxes that had to be checked. The Mayor checked them and went on with the county’s business. Mr. McLendon is certainly entitled to a different estimate than the Mayor’s of the county’s capacity to host a resettlement operation. But the State Department is no more interested in Mr. McLendon’s opinion about that than it is in mine.

To wrap up (mercifully), how many resettled refugees here are we talking about? Bethany Christian Services reports that it’s authorized to provide for 125 refugees, but as of February of this year had served only 86 (just under six hundredths of a percent of the county’s population). That, incidentally, is in keeping with the nationwide pattern I mentioned earlier of refugees actually resettled commonly being fewer than the number authorized. Complicating any effort to get a fix on such numbers is the fact that the refugees, having entered the country as legal residents, are free at any time to go anywhere in the country they like. That’s the reason we don’t know, as Mr. McLendon noted, what happens to these people after their first ninety days here. They’re not imprisoned here. That’s what they left their home countries to escape. As legal residents, they don’t have to report their whereabouts to anybody any more than Mr. McLendon and I do.

So is all this a nefarious, secret plot to turn Athens-Clarke County into Clarkston 2.0? (I’m still trying to figure out why Girtz or anybody else would be interested in doing that.) If it is, so far it’s failing miserably. Clarkston is a city of only 14,537 as of July 1, 2022, 40% of whom are foreign born. The comparable figure for Athens-Clarke County with a population of 128,561 is 9.7%.

Maybe that explains why, when I make my rounds around town, I’d have trouble distinguishing between any refugees I meet and the 2600 foreign students currently enrolled at UGA.





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7 commentaires

Plain and simple fact to me is the citizens of Athens Clarke county are always viewed as simple annoyances to certain agendas.

Athens is unsafe and frankly most of us just ask we have a say in what is being negotiated behind closed doors.


It is refreshing to see such a thoughtful and sourced response to the current political environment regarding our fellow humans seeking refuge, asylum & a better life in general. Thank you.


22 mars

At the end of the day, this is a totally pointless, contrived controversy. Whether or not Mayor Girtz does or doesn’t write a couple of “To Whom It May Concern” letters to anonymous bureaucrats somewhere doesn’t prevent any legal resident of the country, including refugees admitted under the resettlement program, from coming here to live. This is America. Our legal population can distribute themselves around the country however they want to. Whatever Mayor Denson did to tank the refugee resettlement site here in 2014 hasn’t deterred nearly 12,500 (as of 2022) foreign born people from taking up legal residence in Athens.


Leon Gatis you can paint a pig any color you want but it’s still a pig. Get in touch with reality.


22 mars

Obviously you’re not in touch with your community. There are folk here not earning enough, don’t have jobs, are getting evicted, are homeless, are looking for living spaces etc Even if it were just a dozen people being brought here to give them a place to stay and a job —that’s 12 less Athenians that we are not helping in our community. Your defense of the mayor’s actions are weak. He should be signing onto Federal programs that will ease the pressure on our 20+ % poverty rate that has existed in this town for the past decade. Instead, he goes and requests and signs on to help non Athenians. Please go walk to the poor neighborhoods that lack infrastructure…

30 mars
En réponse à

I don't understand your concerns. The resettlement program doesn't compete for local tax dollars because, as I pointed out, it's funded by the federal government and its designated non-profit partners, like Bethany Christian Services. But you don't have to take my word for that. Here's what the Georgia Department of Human Services says about it: "The mission of the Georgia Department of Human Services is to strengthen Georgia by providing individuals and families access to services that promote self-sufficiency, independence and protect Georgia's vulnerable children and adults.

"In Georgia, the Department of Human Services Refugee Program supports this mission by administering the federally funded Refugee Program. Georgia has a State Refugee Coordinator, who is responsible for coordinating public and private resources…

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