The mayor of Athens, Georgia, has joined a growing chorus of mayors across the U.S. who are concerned about the federal government's resettlement of foreign refugees in their cities and the resulting drain on public services.
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The refugees come from war-torn countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and require a plethora of government services to help them overcome language and cultural barriers. They have little or no job skills that translate into trades in a modern economy such as the U.S.
Athens has been targeted as the latest refugee city of destination by New York City-based International Rescue Committee Inc., which provides resettlement services for the federal government on a contract basis. IRC wants to transplant 150 refugees who are fleeing Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.
Athens Mayor Nancy Denson recently sent a letter asking the IRC to delay the resettlement until it can put together a "formal refugee integration plan."
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Once the IRC gets approval to open an office in Athens, the pipeline of refugees would continue on an annual basis. That's why Denson said the community must know ahead of time if it is able to accommodate the needs of the refugees for housing, schooling, public health and welfare services.
Denson, a Democrat, has the support of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in her effort to forestall the opening of an IRC resettlement office in Athens. International Rescue Committee is the largest and oldest of the nine private agencies that contract with the federal government to resettle foreign refugees in U.S. cities.
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Denson said 85 percent of the students in Athens/Clarke County public schools already qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, which is the main indicator schools use to measure poverty in their communities. And the school system is already funded at 20 mills, the maximum property tax allowed by the state Constitution.
"So they don't have the ability to bring more students in with great needs of all kinds, from language glitches, to possibly even mental health issues in some cases because they are coming from countries that are broken by civil war," Denton told WND. "And that's going to put another stress on our school system, which is already stressed."
Denson is not the first U.S. mayor to resist the influx of refugees and asylum seekers.
Manchester, New Hampshire, Mayor Ted Gatsas has been trying unsuccessfully to get a moratorium on refugee resettlement within his city since July 2011.
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State Rep. Phil Greazzo, R-Manchester, told New Hampshire Public Radio that the resettlement agency responsible for the state's refugees is not doing a good job helping refugees integrate, and the city’s social services are "overwhelmed."
Springfield, Massachusetts, Mayor Domenic Sarno appealed to federal officials twice in the last year to stop sending refugees to his city, citing stress on local schools, police and social services.
"I have enough urban issues to deal with," Sarno, also a Democrat, told the International Business Times on June 23. "Enough is enough."
The mayor first asked the federal government to stop sending refugees last summer, saying social service departments are simply unable to care for so many people.
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"I'm not cold-hearted at all," Sarno told his local newspaper. "I want to help. All I am asking is for accountability from the agencies. You can't just continue concentrating poverty on top of poverty."
Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy of Lynn, Massachusetts, 10 miles north of Boston, has also complained about refugees and unaccompanied Central American children being dumped on her city, beyond its capacity to pay for the children's welfare.
In an interview with a local Fox affiliate, she said most of the children have no basic skills, speak tribal languages and require special language tutors. Kennedy said she increased her school budget 9.3 percent this year and had to decrease all the other departments 2 to 5 percent to make it up.
The City of Amarillo, Texas, has repeatedly questioned why it has been inundated with 500 to 600 foreign refugees per year when, based on its population, it should receive no more than 60.
State Sen. Kel Seliger made a stop in Amarillo last month to discuss education and water issues, but most of the residents wanted to talk about the influx of refugees and their concerns about the toll it was taking on city finances (see video below).
"Who stands to benefit from the unbalanced number of refugees?" asked resident Alan Abraham in an interview with KVII-TV, the local ABC affiliate in Amarillo. "It's become a burden, and it's worth the investigation of who lubricates that system with the money."
Seliger said it's simple.
"I think it's just money driven," he surmised.
The questions Seliger wants answered are: Who's getting the money, and who's dishing it out?
Those are the same questions WND has investigated in a series of reports this year about the United Nations refugee resettlement program. In the first article, WND explained how private charities profit from the refugee resettlement business. WND was also the first major news agency to report that the next big wave of refugees will be coming from Syria.
The money comes predominantly from the federal government under the authority of the Refugee Act of 1980. It flows into the coffers of nine private agencies or contractors, who then subcontract with other charitable agencies. These agencies continually lobby the White House and Congress for increases in the number of refugees that will be absorbed annually into the United States. Once the refugees are here, their relatives are then brought in under the State Department's family reunification program.
The United States takes in more international refugees than all the rest of the world's countries combined, according to the State Department, with more than 3 million resettled in American cities since 1975.
The State Department is on track to resettle more than 70,000 foreign refugees this year, mostly from war-torn Muslim countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and now Syria, although a minority of the refugees from Iraq will likely be Christian.
The refugees are selected by the United Nations and then screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for any ties to terrorist organizations. Critics argue it's impossible to adequately screen refugees from countries where all semblance of law and order has broken down. And, in fact, dozens of the refugees imported into the United States over the years have been convicted of providing material support for terrorist organizations. The FBI has also been investigating the disappearance of between 20 and 25 American Somalis from Minnesota who have joined the ranks of radical Islamic terrorist groups including ISIS in Syria and Al-Shabab in Somalia.
There are also new concerns about importing refugees from Africa now that the worst Ebola outbreak in history has a grip on that continent's western quadrant.
But the Athens mayor's concerns have nothing to do with terrorism or disease.
Denson said Athens and Clarke County, Georgia, are "very welcoming" communities. Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, which has accepted students from virtually every country in the world at one time or another.
What she is concerned about is her community's ability to absorb roughly 150 refugees a year in tough economic times while the city has struggled to take care of its own growing poverty problems.
"I think it's incumbent on the IRC to do their due diligence to make sure that statements and assumptions about our community's ability to absorb the refugees and take care of them are accurate, but I have not requested a study," Denson told WND. "My letter was to say that due diligence had not been done prior to the request from IRC to the State Department for funding for designating our community as a resettlement community and starting to bring refugees into Clarke County."
Denson said the IRC's statement to the federal government suggests the refugees would work in a local chicken processing plant in Clarke County.
"I got a copy of the statement, and it said they would fill slots for entry level and low-wage employees. In Athens, we don't have enough of those slots for people who are looking for jobs now," Denson said. "Our community is a very embracing community, a university community, and so we have people who have come here from probably every country in the world. So we are not one of those communities who do not want those people in our community. We are welcoming of people of all races and religions. It's not that at all. My objections are … I want everyone who comes into our community to have an opportunity to be successful."
IRC hires expensive new CEO from London
The IRC is the largest of the nine contractors working to resettle refugees in the U.S. It has offices in 22 U.S. cities with an annual budget of $456 million. It also has a new high-profile president and CEO, David Miliband, 49, who served as foreign secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010 and has a strong family background in leftist politics in the U.K. He joined IRC and moved to New York City in September 2013, two years after losing a bitter battle with his younger brother, Ed, for the leadership of the British Labor Party.
Denson said J.D. McCrary, executive director of IRC in Atlanta, issued misleading statements about the refugee program and gave the State Department the false impression that Athens would be an ideal place to resettle refugees from Iraq, Syria, Congo and Burma.
"Mr. McCrary and others, they make statements that the refugees are 90 percent self-sustaining after the first year, but when I talked to Mr. McCrary I asked him about the 90 percent figure, and what does that mean," Denson told WND.
What she found out was that "self-sustaining" does not mean "self-sufficient." It turns out that refugees "sustain" themselves through an array of social services programs provided by government and charitable organizations.
If the refugees are able to land jobs at all, they will not have the skills to find anything but the lowest-paying work in a community such as Athens/Clarke County, Denson said.
They will rely on government for most of their basic needs, including subsidized housing, food stamps, Medicaid and cash vouchers made available through the refugee program. And that does not even take into account the added burden on the local school system. So it is mostly through taxpayer-funded services that refugee families become "self-sustaining" in the eyes of the resettlement agencies.
According to IRC's most recent Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, 78 percent of its $456 million annual budget is funded through government grants. IRC officials have not yet released Miliband's salary, but the Telegraph newspaper of London has reported the former top diplomat and his two former political aids also hired by IRC are expected to cost the agency about $1.6 million in their first year on the job.
Athens officials say local input was scant
Athens/Clarke County leaders met in Atlanta with IRC staff in August and did not come away feeling like their concerns were adequately addressed, according to the Athens mayor's letter to Michael Singleton, the refugee coordinator for Georgia Department of Health and Human Services.
Denson described the efforts of IRC director J.D. McCrary to notify local government and community leaders of the project's scope as "inadequate."
"Community notification of the refugee resettlement project scope came late in the process, included very few relevant community stakeholders and did not provide our community an opportunity to comment on the selection of Athens as a refugee resettlement site," Denson wrote in the letter.
She said her city, with a population of 120,000, wanted more local input into the planning of the refugee program.
McCrary told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was "not entirely sure what is meant by additional planning and community consultation as this was extensively undertaken during the past year."
Denson said the meeting in Atlanta was attended by the county's schools superintendent, the public health director, a representative of the Department of Family and Children's Services, the Athens police chief, city manager and the head of public housing.
"So this is not just a Nancy Denson position," she told WND. "We have one of the highest poverty rates for a community of our size. We're in an economic downturn, but even without an economic downturn our resources are very stretched.
"So we don't need to import more people into poverty because it's not good for our community to bring people in and put them to work in a chicken plant and say 'welcome to America.'"
Denson said McCrary stated that another reason Athens was chosen as a resettlement community is because it has an abundance of safe, affordable housing.
"We do have a lot of safe housing in Athens and a lot of affordable housing, but they're not necessarily one in the same," she said. "The areas the refugees are going to be able to afford to live in are not the ones that are safe, but he used the term 'safe and affordable' jointly as if there were plenty of that housing available, so I feel there were misleading statements given to the State Department by Mr. McCrary of the IRC."
McCrary also claimed he'd been trying to arrange a meeting with the mayor for 10 months, "which is absolutely untrue," Denson said.
"I find it interesting that someone who makes their living with refugees is pushing something that is not in the best interest of either the city of Athens or the refugees," she said.
"There are many folks who are here now who are living in poverty whom we are trying to assist," she added. "We have problems with panhandling that our merchants downtown are dealing with, I want this to be a vibrant, healthy community."
Maryland activist: Once door opens 'it's hard to shut'
Ann Corcoran, an activist who questioned the influx of refugees into her community of Hagerstown, Maryland, in 2007 and started blogging for Refugee Resettlement Watch, said the concerns voiced by the Athens mayor are not unusual.
"Other towns absolutely have been fighting back," Corcoran said. "The other side, the federal government and contractor side, they don't want any study of the impact, they don't want anything done that would require the public to get involved, to find out how many jobs are available for these people, how many government services are required, what the effect will be on local schools, etc. They don't want the public to know how this program is run."
Once a resettlement agency gets an office up and running, it becomes virtually impossible to control the flow of refugees into a city, Corcoran said. At that point, there are too many financial incentives to grow the program.
"They don't want to stop. Primarily they've got a foothold in the town, they've got an office set up, they have staff employed and since they're paid by the head for every refugee they bring in, they get a flat figure, so there's never any incentive to stop the flow," she said. "They've got office space, utilities and salaries to pay.
"Once they have the original refugees resettled, then they're paid by the head to bring in the family members for reunification," she continued. "So it's never ending, and it's impossible then to stop the flow."
Corcoran said most of the mayors from Massachusetts and other Northeastern states are careful in how they word their requests for the refugee spigot to be shut down or at least slowed.
"They all say they need to slow up the flow because they need time for the people to have a chance to assimilate. The fact is, these communities are just financially being drained," she said. "Once it starts, they have no power to stop the flow. The mayor here in Hagerstown had no power. Nobody had any power but we – myself and another resident – asked the hard questions and created what they considered 'negative publicity,' and the State Department cut it off."
Corcoran said the State Department finally ordered the closure in 2007 of the resettlement office operated by the Virginia Council of Churches in Hagerstown, which is a subcontractor for the New York-based Church World Service resettlement agency.
But offices are rarely closed once they are established in a city.
"Once they set up an office, that is what you want to try to avoid," she said.