Obama asks US to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees: Is that the right number?

The increase is certain to run into opposition from those worried about potential national security implications. But refugee advocates criticize the ramping up as too modest in the face of global need.

Petros Giannakouris/AP
Jango from Syria and his daughter Varia, foreground right, land with others refugees on the island of Lesbos, as arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Greece, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. The island of some 100,000 residents has been transformed by the sudden new population of some 20,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Thirty-six – That’s the total number of Syrian refugees the United States accepted in 2013.

Ten thousand – that’s the number of Syrians President Obama revealed Thursday he wants the US to prepare to take in next year.

The number of Syrian refugees the US would take in next year represents a “significant scaling up” of the US effort to respond to Syria’s humanitarian crisis, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday.

But the increase Mr. Obama is proposing is certain to run into opposition from those worried about potential national security implications, as well as from those who are likely to criticize the ramping up as too modest.  

Indeed, with images of tens of thousands of fleeing Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans, and others filling American homes and tugging at Americans’ conscience, calls are mounting for the US to step up and do more.

“It’s not too late to do the right thing,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said in a statement Wednesday on the refugee crisis gripping Europe.

The US should accept thousands more Syrians and other refugees each year, some politicians and refugee advocates are saying – with some proposing as much as doubling the 70,000 refugees now taken in annually.

Obama and other administration officials suggest they agree on some increase. Obama is proposing that the US raise its target for 2016 to 75,000 refugees, and that the 10,000 Syrians would fall within that figure.

The advocacy group Human Rights First called Obama’s plan “disappointing,” saying in a statement, “This is not leadership, it is a barely a token contribution given the size and scale of the global emergency.”

Increasing the number of refugees, Syrian or otherwise, that the US accepts will not happen overnight.

Standing in the way of a quick response is a complex vetting system. On the books since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is aimed at keeping terrorists and other bad elements out of the country.

“We’re trying to weed out people who are liars, who are criminals or would-be terrorists,” a senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity since the issue of increased refugee quotas is under discussion. Noting that the country’s refugee acceptance program was completely shut down after 9/11 to allow for a new, more through vetting system to be put in place, the official acknowledged that the new system “slows down the process.”

Would-be refugees to the US must pass muster with a myriad of agencies. And given that those seeking US entry are fleeing conflict and failed states, gathering the necessary documentation can become nearly impossible.

Secretary of State John Kerry pledged Wednesday that the US will do more in the coming year. “We are committed to increasing the number of refugees that we take,” he said after meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.

The United Nations is calling on wealthy countries to take in 130,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, proposing that the US accept about half of those. A figure of about 65,000 would basically double the number of refugees the US is currently taking in annually, and would far surpass the approximately 1,500 Syrians the US has accepted during the Syrian civil war, now into its fifth year.

Speaking before the White House unveiled the figure of 10,000 additional Syrians, Mr. Kerry declined to even hint at what that increase might be. The State Department is considering a range of numbers, the senior official who spoke with journalists said.

The proposed increase is being met by a range of responses, from fervent support to deep skepticism.

At the “no more Syrians” end of the scale is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Texas Republican Michael McCaul, who says that rushing to accommodate more Syrians risks opening up a “jihadist pipeline” to the US.

“[Accepting] thousands of Syrians into the United States, not knowing who they are, I think would be very irresponsible,” Representative McCaul told Fox News Tuesday. Noting that the cyber-evidence is out there that the self-described Islamic State aims to infiltrate the US, McCaul added, “We’ve read their documents … when they talk about exploiting the refugee crisis issue to get into the United States.”

Refugee advocates, on the other hand, insist that the vast majority of applicants from countries in conflict are simply seeking safety for themselves and their families, and that the US has the capacity to welcome more than the 70,000 refugees currently accepted.

They note that the US accepted up to 200,000 refugees annually toward the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Proponents of higher refugee numbers, and particularly of Syrians, also point out that the US has successfully welcomed and integrated communities of refugees from countries torn by Islamist extremist violence.

They cite the Somali community that has settled in Minneapolis and grown to about 35,000.

A few members of the community have been lured back to fight on the side of the Al Shabaab terrorist group, refugee advocates say. But the dominant picture by far, they add, is of once-downtrodden Minneapolis neighborhoods revitalized by an influx of Somali families and businesses.

The State Department tends to come down on the side of the argument that holds that welcoming refugee populations enriches the US, is a boon to local economies, and is the right thing for the US to do.

But the senior official discussing the mounting global refugee crisis also advised Americans to remember that the US has long been the top recipient of refugees worldwide.

“The US leads the world in resettling refugees,” the official said, noting that the 70,000 the US aims to take in annually is about 70 percent of the global total.

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