top of page

Tipping Point in the Classic City: Athens as a U.S. Refugee Resettlement Site(Part one)

A lampost in the Target shopping center on Atlanta Highway

By Michael H. McLendon

Part 1 - How We Got Here

Athens was already approaching a tipping point due to the consequences of being a magnet for the homeless along with an increasing illegal immigrant population. Both groups have likely been drawn to Athens by local government homeless and sanctuary friendly attitudes and policies.

Now we learn Athens was designed as an official U.S. Refugee Resettlement site in 2022. The mayor knew this but did not tell the commissioners and the public. Only recently have a few of the commissioners learned that Athens is an RR site, but they have been shielded from the details.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The ACC Government has demonstrated that Athens is a sanctuary city by its attitude, policies, and practice since 2018/2019. At the Commission meeting on Tuesday, 5 February 2024, the ACC government doubled down on its unofficial sanctuary city policy.

A city does not have to enact an official ordinance to demonstrate by word and practice that the sanctuary porch welcome light is on. The mayor has been the most vocal cheerleader of this “unofficial” sanctuary city policy by saying on the one hand Athens is not a sanctuary city while virtue signaling that it is.  

Now add to this mix a continuous flow of refugees along with the additional unplanned demands on services and resources with Athens being a RR site. This scenario is pushing Athens beyond the tipping point and here is the reason.

Athens is the smallest geographical county in Georgia. And it faces momentous challenges -  a chronic shortage of affordable housing andpoverty among some groups, increased demands for already strained social/community services, limited $ and other resources, an ever-increasing cost of living, and crime/drug/gang problems that seem to most as not rom diminishing no matter the rhetoric from City Hall. These challenges are significant, not easily mitigated, and have far reaching effects.

At the same time, City Hall’s priorities for spending taxpayer $ are upside down. City officials believe the tax digest is a piggy bank to fund their feel-good projects, rather than making decisions based on first funding must have infrastructure needs and affordability. The insatiable appetite of City Hall for taxpayer $ is forcing many to ponder the possibility of losing their family homes in long established Classic City neighborhoods.

We all want to be compassionate. But there are only so many demands that can be shoehorned into ACC given the keen competition for public and private services and resources.

There is a limit to what is affordable and feasible without upending the quality of life in Athens,which makes many things possible. Athens cannot be all things to all people all the time, but the mayor and others like to communicate it can, creating unrealistic expectations.

So, how did this happen?

In November 2022, the U.S. State Department designated Athens as an official Refugee Resettlement site and the initial group of refugees began arriving in Athens in sometime September 2023 or earlier. The U.S. government and their RR provider Bethany Christian Services (BCS) released no public announcement or held community wide meetings to inform the publicabout their plans.

There was never any formal communications and coordination with the ACC Mayor, Commission, CCSD, stakeholders, and the public at any time about Athens being an RR site. And there has never been any item on any ACC Mayor and Commission agenda about Athens being an RR site.

Like so much that happens that impacts our community, it is likely you did not know about this. The reason is much of what the public should know is often hidden behind deliberate government obfuscation and willful silence so there is no transparency.

But there is one elected official who did know...Kelly Girtz, the mayor, knew. In 2022 Mayor Girtz attended several informal meetings with BCS representatives about their plan?

He then failed to inform the Commissioners about the RR plan and did not direct ACC staff to get engaged with BCS to get the facts and represent citizen equities. More importantly he did not inform the public. Sound familiar!

It is possible that the mayor is still engaged directly, out of sight with BCS while excluding the public and the commissioners from what he is doing. What the City Manager knew, if anything, and when he knew it is not known.

We saw this movie before in 2014.

Mayor Girtz’s behavior was vastly different from what Mayor Nancy Denson did in 2014. In 2014, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) tried to turn Athens into an RR site. Mayor Denson was aggressive in her actions to inform the public and opposed the IRC plan for many good reasons which remain valid today. Part of the reason for ACC’s opposition was the fact that the IRC did not present a formal refugee integration plan to local elected officials and community stakeholders. Ultimately, the State Department disapproved the IRC’s plan for Athens.

Now the IRC and State Department are back for a second bite of the apple.

It is worthy of note that the IRC is the mentor organization for the BCS RR program. Like the IRC’s effort 10 years before, BCS has not presented a formal refugee integration plan to ACC officials, stakeholders, and the public. Is this a coincidence? Are there advocates in Athens who have been working quietly to make this a reality 10 years later? Does some group have a vision to use this second bite of the apple as the first step to make Athens another Clarkston? There are many questions.

We do know BCS has yet to answer a set of questions posed to them on 9 February 2024 about the RR program. One of the pieces of information that should have been provided to the public was the BCS proposal to the State Department. This proposal would shed light on “why Athens.” Their proposal would identify who BCS talked with to base their claim about the feasibility of Athens being an RR site and the fact there was “local buy-in” to their plan. A copy of this proposal was requested, but not yet provided.

How did this situation come to light?

This situation came to light in December 2023 and January 2024 because several commissioners were alerted by non-profit organizations and others that immigrants were seeking services regarding green cards, identification cards, housing, etc. Efforts to gather the facts about this situation from BCS and the State Department have proven to be challenging...really more like pulling teeth or penetrating some secret classified program.

Even before December 2023 and January 2024, some things just did not add up about what was going on in Athens.

Those who track the homeless population and citizens reported seeing and engaging non-US and non-English speaking individuals often with luggage and bags. The size of Athens’ homeless population as reported by ACC appearedexceedingly large for a city the size of Athens. Further, Athens police reports often cite incidents in which those arrested had no identification and were not fluent in English.

An incident on 20 September 2023 at the ACC public meeting about the ACC Homeless Strategycreated a high level of anxiety. A man, who seemed truly knowledgeable about the homeless issue and illegal immigrant population, spoke very candidly about what he knew about illegal immigrants coming to Athens.

He made the point that 6,000 immigrants were headed to Athens and Athens was not ready for what was about to happen. Those who heard him were stunned and his comments led to questions about whether or not Athens was a sanctuary city.

Many who attended the meeting at the library were surprised the ACC government took no action to investigate the claims made by this person. When ACC should have aggressively investigated this claim to discover the facts, it did nothing.

As a result, on 11 October 2023 the mayor was asked what ACC knew about illegal immigrants coming to Athens. One of the questions posed to the mayor was “Have you or any other elected or appointed ACC official including ACC staff had any contact or communication with any NGO’s [Non-Governmental Organization] regarding migrants coming to ACC and the housing of migrants?”  

In response to a 23 October 2023 follow-up request, the mayor finally responded by stating:  “There is no veracity to the “6000 migrants” suggestion. We have grown accustomed to random banter at the podium, and this is part of that vast collection.”

The mayor did not directly answer the questionbecause he did not want to admit he knew about Athens being an RR site. Then he would be forced to take a position on all forms of immigration into Athens and what he knew.

Rather than being candid and transparent, the mayor decided to be dismissive in his response to the public and the commission. The mayor has known for a long time what was happening – increasing homeless and illegal immigrant populations and now on top of that, a RR population.

His answer to the question made it clear that he has no respect for the public and no tolerance for members of the public asking him direct questions. His performance at his 28 February 2024 press conference after the tragic loss of Laken Riley made his disdain for the views of the public once again visible to all.

Legacy of Eroding Trust in Local Government

There is no basis for trust in government when the mayor, as the senior elected official in ACC, is secretive and not transparent. From creating a hub to draw the homeless to Athens to turning on the sanctuary city welcome light to now enabling a stealth plan to make Athens a Refugee Resettlement site, the mayor has been bobbing and weaving to divert attention to what is really going on. The decision to establish an RR site in Athens is a big deal!

Many citizens see and feel what is happening in Athens and want to know how much is enough.They also wonder what else the mayor along with others are engaged in behind the scenes given the lack of transparency in local government.

Michael H. McLendon resides in Athens-Clarke County Commission District 7.

4,750 views11 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Excellent article well researched and very timely. People have to understand that there are no free lunches someone always has to pay.

The article is not about race. You may want it to be, but, it’s not. It is about the deceitful mayor of our community

and the burden he has placed on the shoulders of all the citizens of Athens.

Remember, Elections Have Consequences!


One problem with the current mayor and commission is that they are all looking to their job as a stepping stone for a bigger and better political positions. As a result, they tend to group think with the latest liberal ideas. There was a time, not too long ago, that successful people filled these positions as a way to give back to and to better their community, with no intentions of further public office. Unfortunately, the productive members of our community no longer have a voice in local government and there does not appear to be any change on the horizon.


The only thing that politicians understand is money. Money keeps them in office. Money funds the agenda. Stop spending your money in Athens. When the money dries up and business starts to close and move to more business friendly places things / agendas will change.

The main driver of Athens business is UGA and the out of town innocents that freely spend daddy's dollars and student loans there.

Stop spending your money in Athens where possible. Give to charities that teach self support of the person.


So our inept mayor knew that the feds were relocating illegal immigrants to the community but chose to keep the information secret from the citizens and taxpayers of Athens. So much for transparency in local government. I think it’s time for the people to initiate a recall petition for Girtz. He’s a dishonest and dishonorable person and has no business holding a position of trust.


One thing that isn’t mentioned here is that Athens is a metro area that serves 6-12 surrounding counties depending on the service needed. People come here because their counties don’t provide healthcare services, mental healthcare, affordable housing, transit and jobs. Maybe it’s time for surrounding counties to take care of their own instead of blaming athen’s leaders for the problems they helped create.

The most obvious theme of this editorial is that Mike hates poor people and people that don’t look like him. It has nothing to do with policy…he just wants Athens white again.

Replying to

Pure BS

bottom of page