Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday rescinded an order that sought to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia, clearing the way for new arrivals from the war-torn nation to receive food stamp benefits.The turnabout comes days after Attorney General Sam Olens said in a formal opinion that Georgia can’t legally resist the resettlement of Syrian refugees, a decision praised by refugee advocates who threatened a drawn-out legal battle over Georgia’s stance. (Read the order here.)
Deal had struck a hard line on the debate, joining more than two dozen other Republican governors who raised concerns about the Obama administration’s resettlement program in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris in November.
His executive order had prevented state agencies from filing any paperwork or halt any involvement in accepting refugees. When faced with the Obama administration’s demand that he withdraw the order, the governor vowed that the state will vigorously defend his stance 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 in December. “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.”The Olens opinion, though, gave him little leverage to continue the fight. Olens wrote that he is “unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program, no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be.”
“Accordingly, it is my official opinion that both federal law and the State’s agreement to act as the state refugee resettlement coordinator prevent the State from denying federally-funded benefits to Syrian refugees lawfully admitted into the United States,” he wrote.
Democrats and refugee advocates have painted Deal’s order as a symbolic and toothless move, arguing that the federal government has the final say over immigration policy.
As if to underscore their point, a family of three arrived in metro Atlanta from Syria shortly after Deal penned the order. State officials approved their application for food stamps and Medicaid benefits late Monday after weeks of limbo, according to Joshua Sieweke of the Atlanta office of the World Relief resettlement agency.
“I’m thankful we have finally gotten to this point,” he said. “What I am most thankful for is this clears the way for the family’s welcome to be complete.”
The Department of Human Services followed Deal’s order with a memo to staff instructing them to “resume processing applications for benefit assistance to Syrian refugees.”
The governor’s critics, meanwhile, mocked his opposition to the resettlement program in the first place. Michael Smith of the Democratic Party of Georgia called the order “a bombastic partisan stunt full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”