As United States cracks down on refugee resettlement, the ‘Ellis Island of the South’ keeps open arms
The Clarkston, Georgia area accepts 1,500 refugees a year, but Trump’s anti-immigration agenda threatens the town’s inclusiveness.
CLARKSTON, GEORGIA — When 44-year-old Leon Shombana moved to the Atlanta area in 2012 as a refugee, almost a decade after he fled a violent civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he found a job in a poultry processing plant.
The job was hard and the conditions were difficult. So when he learned that a coffee truck in the the small town of Clarkston, Georgia was willing to hire and train refugees and help teach them English, he jumped at the opportunity.
A little over a year later, Shombana is a manager at Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston, a town that’s often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the South.” In recent decades, the Clarkston area has accepted roughly 1,500 refugees each year, making the town the most diverse 1.4 square miles in the United States. Clarkston is now home to people from more than 40 countries speaking more than 60 languages.
On a hot and humid Saturday morning in June, Shombana took a break from manning the truck’s espresso machine, even as the line for coffee snaked around the parking lot. Standing behind a podium, smiling wide, and speaking in his now-fluent English, Shombana told more than a hundred neighbors how happy he was to celebrate World Refugee Day in a town that has accepted him and allowed him to start a new life.
“When I start here, I was asking myself, am I going to find the people who speak the same language with me? Am I going to find the people from different places?” he said. “I realized that Clarkston is the place to be… Each kind of person you want to see in the world, you can find them in Clarkston. Clarkston is a good place for us. This is a place of refugees.”
Shombana recognizes how lucky he is. The world right now is experiencing the largest forced migration crisis in recorded history, with more than 21.3 million refugees worldwide. And opportunities, especially in the United States, are quickly disappearing. President Trump campaigned for the presidency with a staunchly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee message, and in his five months in office, his administration has followed through with actions that have terrified the residents here.
In recent months, refugees in Clarkston have reported being verbally harassed and assaulted while walking their children to school or pumping gas. Cab drivers say they fear for their safety. And undocumented immigrants who don’t have the protection of a refugee status, including ten Somalis who were detained in April, worry that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could stop them without cause and send them away from this multicultural haven.
“I’m an American and I don’t feel good for the first time,” said Omar Shekhey, director of the Somali American Community Center, which works with roughly 7,000 Somali refugees and immigrants in the area. “We are in a daily survival mode almost. It was hard before. Now its like 20 times worse.”
In the shadows of the KKK’s Stone Mountain
Trump’s presidency has brought a level of racism and xenophobia to Clarkston that has roots in its more troubled past. The town was once 90 percent white and was used as a meeting ground for Ku Klux Klan rallies. Longtime residents remember when the white supremacist group would light cars and crosses on fire atop nearby Stone Mountain and then throw them off the cliffs.
That began to change in the 1980s, when the federal government was looking to add structure to refugee settlement in the United States. After a search of the country, Clarkston was designated a resettlement area because of its proximity to Atlanta, walkability, and availability of public transportation and affordable housing.
Over the next few decades, a coalition of resettlement organizations helped more than 1,000 refugees come to the Clarkston area each year, reshaping the racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the town.
By 1990, whites had become a minority. The transition was not always easy — many older white residents claimed refugees were threatening the way of life here, but largely they have moved elsewhere, according to community leaders. Today, reminders of the town’s white supremacist past are rare.
Instead, the main streets are dotted with community centers and immigrant and refugee-owned businesses, including Asian grocery stores, halal restaurants, and African handicraft shops. Nearby Stone Mountain, once a KKK stronghold, is now an amusement park.
Clarkston’s success with resettling agencies has been used as a model for other American cities and even other countries. Though the unemployment rate here is more than twice the national average and the poverty rate is high, resettlement agencies tout the fact that 90 percent of Clarkston refugees are independent within 180 days.
“Refugees who are resettled in Clarkston have a higher self-sufficiency rate than almost anywhere else in the country,” said Jim Neal, director of Clarkston-based Friends of Refugees.
Clarkston’s 34-year-old mayor, Ted Terry, who was elected in 2013, told ThinkProgress that many of the misconceptions about refugees — that they will bring crime or terrorism — are flat out wrong. In fact, when the town increased the number of refugees it took in under President Obama, the crime rate when down, he said.
“Refugees are some of the safest, most peaceful and law-abiding residents that any mayor would want to have in their city,” he said.
The refugee ban president
To immigrant and refugee communities across the country, Trump’s election was a shocking and traumatic event. In Clarkston, the residents took it especially hard.
“The mood here was very somber after Election Day because we were dealing with folks who we care about who were afraid,” Neal said.
Just a week after his inauguration, Trump issued his executive order banning people from six Muslim-majority countries and refugees from all over the world from coming to the United States. The order immediately affected resettlement in Clarkston. “It really slowed to a trickle,” Terry said.
Residents worried about friends, family members, and other people from their countries of origin who were in the process of planning their resettlement, or who have been trying to seek refugee status. The slowdown in new arrivals also hurt local businesses, who rely on refugee customers.
“We had one of our grocery stores tell me that his receipts were down like 30 percent from this time last year, and it was because there was basically a pause in February and March because no refugees were coming in,” Terry said.
In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Trump’s ban, but also lifted a stay lower courts had imposed on the 120-day ban on refugees who cannot show a “bona fide relationship” with someone in the United States. Though the court ruled in July that grandparents and relatives of American residents must be permitted while the court considers the challenge, many refugees are still in limbo waiting for a final word from the country’s highest court.
The five resettlement agencies that work with the U.S. State Department to place people in Clarkston are highly dependent on federal funding. “The attempted travel ban and the slowing of the refugee process has meant they have had to make cuts,” Neal said. Some agencies, like World Relief, have had to close offices and lay off employees around the country.
“No one here has closed offices, but there have been some layoffs,” Neal said. “What we’re starting to see is that they just don’t have the bandwidth to do that continuing casework in some ways. That’s a real impact.”
While the slowdown in resettlement was the most prominent effect of the ban, its impacts were felt more widely. Clarkston residents from places like Sudan worried about traveling home to see family and then not being let back in to the United States.
“Families are concerned they’re not going to be reunited, or united in the first place,” J.D McCrary, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, told ThinkProgress.
“It raised a lot of fears and a lot of questions and concerns,” Neal said.
The fears extend to the greater community. Not every immigrant in Clarkston has a refugee status, so the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants is hurting another population in Clarkston.
“We had never had any concerns about ICE in the refugee community until just the past couple of months,” McCrary said.
In April, ICE detained ten Somali immigrants and is preparing to send them back to Somalia, a country suffering from a drought so intense that aid workers predict more than 60,000 people will die.
“Their only crime is that they need to get their paperwork in order and get another day in court,” Terry said. “They came to America legally but now have become undocumented because of the patchwork of immigration laws. Now, more than ever, we need comprehensive immigration reform.”
In May, ICE officials and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who represents Clarkston, hosted an event. There, Naima Musse, whose husband Abdusalam Hussein was detained, said that if her husband goes back to Somalia, he will face constant danger from extremist group al-Shabaab.
“Who will take care of them there? The pirates? The extremists?” she asked, holding back tears.
ICE agents arrested Hussein at his home, immediately after he dropped his five kids off at school. “Some of them didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to their family,” Shekhey said about the ten detainees.
“It’s really sad that we’re breaking up families, and it’s really affecting Clarkston,” Terry said.
At recent town meetings, children have told Terry that their parents are sending them out to get groceries because they fear being stopped by ICE agents and “they don’t even want to go outside anymore.”
“It’s really creating this shadow over the whole community where we’re pushing people to the periphery or underground,” he said.
The fear is impacting Clarkston law enforcement’s ability to do its job. “If a large portion of the population refuses to interact with police, go out into the public, or call 911, then it’s harder to solve crimes and some won’t go reported,” Terry said. “We’re going to have a less safe community.”
In early May, Clarkston’s city council unanimously voted to became the first city in Georgia to adopt a “non-detainer policy,” saying it the town would not cooperate with ICE officials in detaining undocumented immigrants. “We let our people know, to the extent that we’re allowed by federal and state law, that our officers are not going to be doing double duty as immigration cops,” Terry said.
The vote was important, yet largely symbolic because Clarkston doesn’t have a jail, so it has little ability to control who can be held by police.
The move was applauded by immigration advocates, including Johnson.
“Donald Trump is causing terror within the refugee and immigrant communities of America,” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “Until he stops with his harsh and divisive rhetoric, then the terror will continue.”
Keeping the town’s doors open
Neal said the refugees he works with in Clarkston are prepared to resist the Trump administration’s agenda.
For one thing, they know that elections don’t always have favorable consequences, he said. Many came to the United States because of the result of an election. “Refugees come from places where an election isn’t necessarily a good thing,” he said. “Or it has the potential and often does have really bad outcomes.”
As they fight back, they’re not going it alone. Rep. Johnson said he has been working since Trump’s inauguration to make sure all of his constituents know that they are welcome in Georgia.
“What we have done here in Clarkston since January is to make sure that our immigrant community understands that we know the stress that they feel, we understand how terror works, and we’re trying to calm the waters to let them know that all the people of Clarkston and many of the people in the fourth district are with them,” he said.
Friends of Refugees and other organizations have been leading workshops and seminars, explaining what refugees and immigrants should do if they are approached by federal officials.
“There was a lot of conversation about, here’s what to do if ICE comes to your apartment door,” Neal said. “They did role plays and went through the various scenarios… Folks were asking: ‘Are we still welcome here? Do people want us? What’s going to happen?””
Information was provided to the population at the events in multiple languages, including papers saying “The police are there to help you.”
Neal said one particular handout struck him. “There were various bullet points and the last bullet was: ‘You have a right to practice your religion,’” he said. “I just found myself thinking, this is February 2017 and we’re in the United States.”
The education campaign has also extended to others in the community, encouraging people to support their refugee neighbors.
“We have tried to talk about the fact-based, positive benefits of refugees to our community, the importance they have to our economy, their success and value and character as citizens,” Neal said.
“It doesn’t just make good humanitarian sense; it makes good economic sense to welcome refugees and immigrants,” McCrary said. “Making sure that people understand that is going to make the big difference.”
Volunteer applications to Friends of Refugees are up 400 percent from last year, Neal said, proving that other community members also recognize the value of treating refugees like they belong in Clarkston. “That’s people rising up and looking for what they can do,” he said.
“The one thing that’s going to make a difference is the upswelling of community voices and community support,” McCrary added.
At the World Refugee Day event in June, more 100 people drank cappuccinos and lattes from Refuge Coffee and listened to refugees share their personal experiences coming to Clarkston. Kids and adults decorated welcome home signs for refugees who have yet to arrive in the area, and wrote postcards to their lawmakers encouraging them to look at Clarkston as an example of the positive benefits refugees can have on this country.
“The future is going to look more diverse, more ethnically complex,” Terry said. “If we can make that work in Clarkston, then it gives me hope for the rest of the world.”
As United States cracks down on refugee resettlement, the ‘Ellis Island of the South’ keeps open… was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.