ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia cannot exclude Syrian refugees from resettlement in the state or deny them federally funded benefits, the state attorney general wrote in an official opinion Wednesday.
Gov. Nathan Deal had asked Attorney General Sam Olens for an opinion on an executive order he issued in November directing state agencies to “halt any involvement” in the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Deal said he wanted to block Syrian refugee resettlement in the state until the U.S. State Department establishes and Congress approves a new processes for vetting them.
“I am 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-intentioned or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be,” Olens wrote. “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.”
Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber said the governor is reviewing the opinion.
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In his Nov. 16 order, Deal cited a terrorist attack three days earlier in Paris. He and other governors have made efforts to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees amid fears that terrorists will slip in among them.
The commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services on Nov. 18 sent a memo to agency staff members citing Deal’s order and instructing them not to take or process new applications for any benefit assistance for Syrian refugees.
Federal officials sent a letter a week later to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, which is part of the Department of Human Services and administers the food stamp program in the state, saying that refusing food stamp applications because of national origin violates federal law.
Olens acknowledged in his opinion Wednesday that Deal’s order was a response to concerns about terrorist attacks, and he said he shares those concerns. But the decision to place refugees in a particular state rests entirely with the federal government, he wrote.
Additionally, Olens wrote, Georgia has a formal agreement with the federal government to operate the refugee resettlement program in the state, through which it provides federally funded benefits. The state’s resettlement plan for fiscal year 2015 and a pending plan for fiscal year 2016 include assurances that “assistances and assurances funded under the Plan will be provided to refugees without regard to race, religion, nationality, sex or political opinion.”
The state could choose to end its agreement to serve as the federally designated refugee resettlement program, but that would not free it from having to provide benefits.