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The refugee milestone Obama doesn't want to talk about

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On Monday, the US met President Obama's goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in a year. But it was not a broadly popular goal. 

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    Mohamad Bassel Khair (l.) holds his son, Sami, as his wife, Lama Alassil, takes a photo of them in their home in Clifton, N.J. Mr. Khair, of Damascus, Syria, is graduated from New Jersey's Montclair State University in May.
    Julio Cortez/AP/File
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As a planeload of more than 200 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States on Monday for resettlement in California and Virginia, the goal set by President Obama a year ago of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees was achieved.

The milestone met with little fanfare.

On one hand, that seems an acknowledgment of the political moment. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of the policy, and polls suggest many Americans side with him.

Yet even among those who support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in America, Monday’s low-key announcement was hardly something to celebrate. Refugee and human rights advocates call it woefully insufficient given the dimensions of Syria’s tragedy.

The number is not just lower than what the US is capable of handling, they say, but also well below what many American communities are prepared to welcome.

It is an achievement, in other words, that satisfies few.

In that light, the Obama administration is treading softly, seeking to avoid the kind of anti-refugee rhetoric that bloomed when President Obama first announced the goal, some advocates say.

“We’re certainly pleased the administration has reached their goal, but at the same time it’s important to ground that in the reality that … 10,000 Syrians is a very low number compared to the need and to what others particularly in the region are doing,” says Jen Smyers, associate director for immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service (CWS), a relief and refugee assistance agency supported by Christian denominations. “When you set a low goal and then you meet it, there can only be so much fanfare – especially when you compare it to what we could be doing.”

Partisan split

More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country since the civil war began in 2011, with most of them settling in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. In Lebanon, more than 1 in 5 people are now Syrians. Hundreds of thousands have also crossed the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Germany alone has taken a million refugees.

Given such numbers, the US should “consider this 10,000 milestone ‘a floor and not a ceiling,’ ” said David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who is now president of the International Rescue Committee, in a statement.

Whatever the administration’s goals, now does not appear an opportune moment for trumpeting them.

While 56 percent of Democrats support admitting Syrian refugees, only 18 percent of Republicans do – and that has dropped from 27 percent in 2014, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll released this week.

Support among independents has also declined during the same time – to 32 percent from 40 percent, the poll found.

Mr. Trump has made dire warnings about the impact of allowing more refugees – and particularly Syrians – into the US.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) of Florida argued in a letter to Mr. Obama this month that the refugee program needs to be shut down.

“We need to stop accepting Syrian refugees as a matter of national security,” he said.

Past programs

As recently as 1980, the US airlifted 200,000 Vietnamese and other Indochinese for resettlement in the US – and maintained that pace annually for the next decade.

Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would look to increase resettlement of refugees from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 (ending Sept. 30) to 100,000 next year. But CWS is pressing for a return to 200,000 – and certainly not less than 140,000.

While there was a flare-up of anti-refugee sentiment after the Paris attacks last November, Ms. Smyers of CWS says, “since then people have come to see how secure the program is, and the outpouring of support for refugees that we’re seeing across so many communities is remarkable.”

The number of CWS volunteers has quadrupled in the past year, as have donations to help refugees settle into their new homes. In many communities, the “outpouring of support” has surpassed the needs of the small numbers of Syrian refugees coming in, she says.

Leon Rodriguez, director of US Citizenship and Refugee Services, told reporters at briefing last month in Washington that Syrians faced a tougher vetting process than any group that has entered the US recently.

The overall acceptance rate among Syrians is about 80 percent. Many of those turned away are young men seen to pose a greater risk to US security.

Most of those admitted are families – with large numbers of children. Statistics on the 10,000 Syrian refugees who have come to the US this year show that more than half are under age 18.

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