Pleas for more aggressive U.S.-led measures in the refugee crisis seem futile, given the failures to reach consensus on the country’s own immigration problems.
WASHINGTON — In late spring, with the war in Syria grinding into its fifth year amid the growing humanitarian catastrophe for millions of people, 14 U.S. senators wrote a letter to President Obama urging that at least 65,000 of the displaced be allowed to resettle in the United States.
Critics denounced the idea, saying it would open the nation’s borders to potential terrorists; some branded the authors of the letter as the “jihadi caucus.”
The criticism, which Obama administration officials say is baseless because of screening procedures applied to asylum-seekers, was a powerful measure of the lack of political will and practical capability that has complicated the ability of the United States to intervene more directly in what has become a full-blown refugee crisis unfolding in Europe.
Such obstacles, including an American public weary of overseas initiatives after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remain formidable, even as heart-wrenching photographs of dead children last week focused the American conscience on the Syrian crisis as never before and prompted renewed calls for more aid.
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Pleas for more aggressive U.S.-led rescue measures seem all the more futile given the failures to reach consensus on the country’s own immigration problems, made vivid in the debate over policing the Mexico border and calls by the leading Republican presidential candidate to deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
“Even if there were a green light from the Russians and the Chinese, the appetite for yet another military adventure in Syria is very, very limited among the American public,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow and expert on international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think in this case, the administration is correct, the situation is so incredibly complex among the combatants, there’s very little evidence that United States or Western intervention would make anything better.
“That choice has certain moral consequences, and those moral consequences include vast suffering of the people in Syria, and now in them striking out, at least in the case of refugees, for Europe,” Patrick said, adding that the crisis was “largely Europe’s responsibility.”
The United States has long been the world’s largest donor to the international programs that deliver the most direct assistance to refugees, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Refugee Organization, the World Food Program and others.
Experts say that international system of agencies, largely formed after World War II, does excellent work, but it is overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Worldwide, some 60 million people are said to be forcibly displaced, often by war, with some 19 million refugees, according to U.N. statistics.
Each year, the U.S. grants residency permits to as many as 70,000 refugees from around the world, most referred by the U.N. refugee agency, which helps administer asylum requests.
Only a small fraction of those have been Syrians, in part because the process typically takes up to two years, and the numbers of Syrians referred to the United States only began to increase after the start of the war four years ago.
While the State Department has said it plans to increase the number, to perhaps 1,800 by next year, it would be of little more than symbolic value given the more than 4 million Syrians in need of shelter.
Taking in 65,000, as the 14 senators had urged, is virtually impossible under existing asylum process, which requires lengthy background checks. The small number has opened up the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy as it has implored European allies to accept more.
Within the Obama administration there has been intense discussion about additional action, including the possibility of a major announcement tied to the pope’s visit to Washington this month. But beyond providing additional funds, experts on refugee issues say, the United States’ options are limited.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who signed the letter urging Obama to accept more Syrian refugees, said there was little attention then other than from critics, but that the photographs of recent days seemed to raise awareness.
“It is horrifying,” Klobuchar said of the picture of a drowned toddler in Turkey. “But it is something that we anticipated and that’s why we wrote this letter. We knew of the mounting problem for the humanitarian issues, the moral issues.”