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Why Hasn't America Admitted More Syrian Refugees?

The U.S. has taken in less than 1,000 refugees since the war began—while Brazil has issued more than 6,000 visas

BULENT KILIC / Getty Images.

Four years of war in Syria has created what may well be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. About a quarter million people have died, nearly four million are refugees, and 7.6 million have been displaced internally, according to the United Nations. Syria’s smaller neighbors are buckling under the weight of the crisis. Lebanon, a country smaller than Connecticut, is hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan is hosting more than 600,000. 

As of February, the latest U.N. data available, Brazil had issued over 6,000 humanitarian visas to Syrian refugees, while Switzerland had issued about 4,000. The United States, meanwhile, has admitted fewer than 1,000 refugees since the Syria crisis began. 

That fact prompted Senator Dick Durbin, a onetime mentor and longtime ally of Barack Obama, and 13 fellow Senate Democrats to send a letter to the president deploring the “unacceptably low number” of Syria refugees admitted and urging the administration to “dramatically increase” it. The U.S. has “a moral, legal, and national security imperative” to lead on the issue, the letter stated. In an interview, Durbin added that lawmakers opposed to admitting more refugees should “reflect for a moment on history, when we turned away … Jewish refugees during World War II who were returned, sadly, to concentration camps and death.”

One such lawmaker is Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who, along with two other House Republicans, sent a missive to the administration in January that said the State Department’s plan to admit more refugees posed a security risk. “The United States has a proud history of welcoming refugees from all over the world; however, the Syrian conflict is a special case” because Syria is “home to the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history,” the representatives wrote in the letter. McCaul later said that the Islamic State (ISIS) could turn the State Department refugee resettlement program into “a federally funded jihadi pipeline” to the United States.

The contrasting congressional letters point to an immigration process immeasurably complicated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “We are living in the post-9/11 era," Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told me, "and we can’t just fill up the planes with people and fly them to the United States.”

The U.S. has given over $3 billion in aid in response to the Syrian conflict, the most of any country, but has admitted just 853 refugees under a State Department resettlement program. The U.S. plans to admit between 1,000 and 2,000 in fiscal year 2015 (out a total of 70,000 refugees to the country). “Those numbers are still embarrassingly low, frankly,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, an advocacy group, said of the 1,000-2,000 mark. Australia, for instance, has pledged to resettle 5,600 Syrian refugees, while Germany’s pledge to admit 30,000 Syrians on humanitarian grounds tops all Western countries.

“There’s no question that we’d like to see those numbers increase, consistent with national security prerogatives,” said an Obama administration official. Richard said the 853 figure is low “relative to the numbers that we would like to bring, but I don’t think …we’re slowing down on the job, frankly. I think we’re doing our jobs.” 

But it is not a matter of simply turning on the tap. To be considered for asylum under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (RAP)—the program that Durbin and McCaul are at odds over—one is usually referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency has referred about 12,000 Syrian refugees to the United States for asylum consideration, according to a State Department spokesperson. After the UNHCR referral comes an extensive screening process, such that the entire process from referral to resettlement typically takes 18 to 24 months.

Richard said the government normally doesn’t resettle refugees in the early stages of a crisis “because we always hope that the crisis will end and people will be able to be brought home quickly.” But in the case of Syria, she added, “it’s clear now that that’s not going to happen.” Thus, the administration plans to increase the number of Syrians admitted in fiscal year 2016. The focus will be on the most vulnerable refugees, such as children and survivors of torture, the administration official said.

Acer, of Human Rights First, said her organization has met with Syria refugees who have paid the price for standing up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and some who now fear returning to ISIS-controlled territory. The refugees are “people who are victims of repression, and victims of terrorism, victims of ISIS, people who are fleeing from these horrors,” she said.

But McCaul, the Republican congressman, visited a refugee camp in Jordan and came away with a different overriding impression. “There are a lot of mothers and kids, but there are a lot of males of the age that could, you know, conduct terrorist operations, and that concerns me,” he said at a May 21 breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

“The Obama administration has provided virtually no assurances that the admission of Syrian refugees will not pose a national security threat to the United States,” McCaul said in an email. “If anything, in speaking with leaders in executive branch departments and agencies, I have grown more concerned that we do not have the ability to confidently vet the Syrian refugee population for potential threat actors.”

Those in charge of RAP pushed back on any suggestion of it's being a security risk. An official at DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division said that every Syrian admitted through the RAP program has been subject to rigorous background checks, and that DHS has clear data on all such asylum seekers. And Richard said the security buck stops with DHS: “Anyone who … DHS has any doubts about will not get into the country.”

Meanwhile, the push by Durbin and others to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the country continues. “I know [the administration is] listening,” Durbin said. “I know they’re receptive, but they are getting a lot of pushback from Republicans in Congress, who are arguing that these are dangerous people and we shouldn’t risk it by allowing refugees to come to this country.”