Can White House stop the refugee program from becoming a political football?

The rapid call for a 'pause' in admitting more Syrians – set off by Friday’s attacks in Paris – caught the administration by surprise. It suggests efforts to shield the Syrian refugee surge face tough going.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
A sign welcoming Syrian refugees is placed at the entrance to the office of the Arizona governor during a rally at the Arizona Capitol Tuesday in Phoenix. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has joined a growing number of governors calling for an immediate halt to the placement of any new refugees in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. The State Department says Arizona has received 153 Syrian refugees so far this year.

For decades, the State Department-administered refugee resettlement program has enjoyed broad bipartisan support – even at moments, as during the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, when the public balked at a sudden surge in refugees.

But now, with mostly Republican governors and Republican presidential candidates demanding a halt in admission to the US of Syrian refugees, Obama administration officials are scrambling to protect a program that has long seemed as American as the Statue of Liberty. They fear it could succumb to the hyper-partisan politics that dominate Washington.

“The thing I do not want to lose ... the thing I most fear about this current discussion going on in the United States is that we will lose the bipartisan support for this program that it has enjoyed for decades,” says a senior administration official who helps oversee the program that has resettled some 3 million refugees in the US since the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

“This is a very precious thing,” adds the official, who spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity to discuss the sudden challenge to the refugee resettlement program more openly. “In this current day and age, it’s been a rare thing.”

Administration officials from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center will be on Capitol Hill over the next few days briefing members of Congress on the vetting process for all refugees.

The aim, officials say, will be to provide information to counter the rumors and falsities they say have begun to take hold, and to reverse the rising tide of mostly Republican opposition to President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the US over the coming year.

The rapid rise in opposition to admitting more Syrians – a movement set off by Friday’s attacks in Paris at the hands of the Syria-based Islamic State terrorist group – caught the administration by surprise and suggested that efforts to shield Mr. Obama’s Syrian refugee plans face tough going.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a “pause” in the US resettlement of Syrians, saying, “We cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion.” By Tuesday afternoon, at least 28 governors – all Republican but one – had lined up in opposition to the US resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Countering the backlash, governors from Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, and Washington announced that their states remain open to or would welcome Syrians.

Administration officials say they are also speaking with governor’s offices across the country to answer their questions and allay their concerns, but clearly the focus is on quelling rising congressional opposition to Syrian resettlement in the US.

And for good reason: Governors actually have no power to stop a federal program assigning refugees to their states, but Congress can slow or halt refugee resettlement by cutting off funding.

“Bringing more refugees ... is absolutely dependent on having the resources to run the program,” says a senior administration official.

The current budget should allow for processing the 85,000 total refugees – up from 70,000 last year – that the administration plans to resettle in 2016, officials say. But the administration clearly is out to preserve the bipartisan support for refugee resettlement, especially as it aims to continue increasing the numbers admitted.

“As [refugee resettlement] expands further, it’ll ... be dependent on continued support from Congress, from the Appropriations Committees especially, to fund the program,” says the official, one of three senior officials from federal agencies who briefed reporters Tuesday.

Federal officials sound confident that they can allay the concerns mounting in Congress by fully explaining a screening process for refugees that they describe as “extensive” – and “enhanced” in the case of Syrians and Iraqis.

Every candidate undergoes a series of biographical and biometric checks and interviews that take from 18 months to two years to complete. The final decision on a candidate’s admissibility rests with the Department of Homeland Security, but applications are also reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Defense Department.

One piece of false information that officials say is blooming on social media is the claim that the United Nations decides which Syrians go to the US. While the UN agency in charge of refugee services does refer refugee candidates – thus acting as a “first filter,” as US officials say – the screening process and final decisions on admission are in US hands.

Some refugee advocates have criticized the US process for being too long and cumbersome, but officials insist that the result is a refugee population with very few run-ins with the law – including among the nearly 2,200 Syrians (about half of whom are males, but only about 2 percent of whom are single males of “combat age,” according to the State Department) admitted so far to the US.

Still, the administration’s insistence that the US has a rigorous screening program has been ridiculed by some dubious critics.

Saying it takes only one Islamic State fighter out of 1,000 refugees to cause a “problem,” Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio said Sunday on ABC, "There is no background check system in the world that allows us to find that out, because who do you call in Syria to background-check them?"

Other Republican presidential aspirants appeared to want to outdo Senator Rubio of Florida. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is proposing a religion test that would bar Syrian Muslims but welcome Syrian Christians, while Jeb Bush also said any Syrian refugees should be Christian. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that not even a 5-year-old Syrian orphan should be taken under America’s wing.

The escalating anti-Syrian rhetoric appeared to shock some Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who echoed Obama in blasting the idea of applying a religious test to Syrian refugees. Particularly offensive, Senator McCain suggested, was the idea of subjecting children to such a test.

“I don’t think any child, whether they are Christian or whether they are atheist or whether they are Buddhist, that we should make a distinction,” the 2008 GOP presidential nominee said. “My belief is that all children are God’s children.”

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