Commissioner Dexter Fisher chastises mayor for letters supporting refugee resettlement

Commissioner Dexter Fisher called out Mayor Kelly Girtz publicly in March, chastising him at an unrelated budget meeting for letters he wrote to the US State Department supporting refugee resettlement in Athens.

Girtz wrote letters to the US State Department in 2022 and 2023 on behalf of Bethany Christian Services, a Christian organization offering foster care and adoption services. In the past few years, Bethany has also started a refugee program and they picked Athens as one of their resettlement sites. Girtz wrote the letters at Bethany’s request in part because refugee resettlement was supported by some large local employers and the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

The letter did not actually authorize the resettlement  – that’s up to the state department – and it had no force of law. Girtz says he writes letters for various nonprofits and community organizations “all the time” and views them as a formality. “[The letter request was] just the direct provider trying to maintain a good relationship with both us and the state department and demonstrate that they have reached out to the local government and let us know what their operation is like,” Girtz told APN.

Girtz did not provide any government resources for the resettlement effort, but Fisher feels that he should have been informed anyway because of the negative impact he thinks Bethany’s program will have on Athens’ housing market.

“This immigrant thing. I truly believe it’s going to create a problem for us,” Fisher told his colleagues at the March budget meeting. “We already have a housing crunch…Where are we going to house those folks? We got people here that already need housing.”

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

Girtz clarified that the number of refugees being resettled here is quite small and they would not have a significant impact on Athens’ housing market. Yet, Fisher doubled-down, expressing his hesitancy at the prospect of welcoming refugees.

“Even with that few number of people, we’ve still got to find a place to house those folks,” Fisher said. “When we’re bringing people in from war-torn countries, we’re dealing with mental health issues, we’re dealing with language issues, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff.”

Fisher said he’s heard a lot from his constituents and other community members about the concern they have with allowing refugees into the community.

Alarmist rhetoric about immigration amplified by an ACC Commissioner

One of the people Fisher may have heard from recently is Michael McLendon, a regular at local government meetings. McLendon is often vocal about his right-wing perspective on issues like immigration and homelessness.

In March, McLendon wrote an op-ed for Classic City News, saying that refugee resettlement would be a “tipping point” for Athens. In the article, McLendon worried about Athens’ “momentous challenges” such as the shortage of affordable housing, limited tax resources and crime problems which he implied would be made worse by refugee resettlement. He also cast doubt on the number of refugees who have arrived. The number was 86 as of a few weeks ago according to Girtz, but McLendon cited an unnamed source who thought it may be closer to 6,000. 

“A continuous flow of refugees … is pushing Athens beyond the tipping point,” McLendon wrote.

McLendon also accused the mayor and Bethany Christian Services of acting in a non-transparent manner, as if they were conspiring together to worsen the lives of Athenians behind closed doors. 

“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 [refugee] population … There is no basis for trust in government when the mayor, as the senior elected official in ACC, is secretive and not transparent,” McLendon wrote.

Just weeks later, Fisher amplified McLendon’s message during the budget meeting, repeating many of the points he made in the article. For example, Fisher also expressed concerns about affordable housing, he also accused the mayor of not being transparent and he, too, doubted the number of refugees who would be coming.

“I don’t know what those numbers are,” Fisher said to Girtz. “You say a few families, but is it really a few families?” 

While Fisher did not specifically mention crime during the budget meeting, he did express concern about these refugees’ potential mental health challenges.

“If people think there’s not an impact, they’re not reading the tea leaves,” Fisher told APN. “You gotta understand there’s going to be some type of impact when you’re coming from war-torn countries. That does something to a person’s mind.”

Immigrants play an important role in Georgia’s economy

Immigrants, documented or not, play a vital role in the Georgia economy, especially in the agricultural industry. Furthermore, immigrants pay hundreds of millions in state and local taxes every year and they own 31 percent of Georgia’s small businesses, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Refugees also make significant economic contributions to their newly adopted countries. In fact, this is the reason Girtz supported the program in the first place. 

“Large employers, folks like Caterpillar, Carrier Transicold or Accurus Aerospace or all those kinds of manufacturing folks in particular, they’ve been telling both our economic development department and the chamber of commerce that, ‘hey, we can’t get enough employees,’” Girtz told APN. “The employer community is supportive of this program because they need folks to be on the factory lines.”

David Bradley, president of the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce, told APN that his organization supported Bethany Christian Services’ refugee resettlement program in 2022 for the same reason.

“At the time, virtually every business with which we spoke was seeking employees,” Bradley said. “We do not speak on behalf of all employers but we had conversations with several that noted that, with proper paperwork, they would consider hiring.”

Bradley notes that Bethany has not met his expectations for communication since 2022 and, as a result, he ended up being surprised when refugees started arriving in town. Nevertheless, his organization did help incoming refugees connect with employers as promised “in the spirit of the original agreement.”

Was Girtz transparent with the commission about the refugee program? 

Girtz told APN that he informed the commission of Bethany’s refugee resettlement program in 2022 and 2023, which Fisher acknowledged at the budget meeting. However, Fisher continued to criticize Girtz for not specifically informing him of the letters he wrote to the state department.

It’s unclear what Fisher would have done differently had he seen the letters, since his consent was not required. Indeed, even if Girtz had declined to write the letters, Bethany could have gone ahead with their refugee resettlement plans anyway. Refugees are fully-documented immigrants who are heavily vetted by the US State Department. Once admitted to the country, they are free to travel to Athens or any other city they desire.

“Almost entirely, [the local government is] kind of an outside entity to this,” Girtz told APN. “Almost in the same way that the USDA is out doing soil and water testing and we don’t really have a part in it.”

Bethany Christian Services may resettle a few more refugees in Athens in the coming months or years, perhaps up to a total of 105. Girtz calls this number “a drop in the bucket.”

“We typically add something like 1,000 people to our population every year,” Girtz said. “If you look at the student population growth, it has far outstripped the volume of this immigrant population growth through the refugee program. It’s not unusual to have three, four or five hundred new UGA students in a single academic year. And of course that’s happening year-in, year-out.” 

Refugees coming to Athens through Bethany Christian Services come from a number of different countries, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela and Afghanistan.

Help APN continue covering local news for the Athens area!
Please consider becoming a member or giving a one-time donation via PayPal.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *