WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wants to help its allies across the Atlantic with an escalating migrant crisis, but is unlikely to open America’s doors to vast numbers of Syrian and other refugees arriving each day by the thousands in Europe.
While Germany braces for some 800,000 asylum seekers this year, many of whom are fleeing Syria’s civil war, the U.S. isn’t saying if it will increase its worldwide quota for resettling refugees from 70,000. Only a fraction of those would be Syrians, who must first navigate a multiyear application process before learning if they can start a new life in the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry plans to brief members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Wednesday about how many Syrian refugees the U.S. is willing to take in.
When it comes to the current migrant challenge, the U.S. and Europe are clearly in different places. Whereas the United States is separated by an ocean from the Middle East and North Africa, Europe’s place adjacent to one of the world’s most volatile regions makes it an obvious destination for people fleeing war, persecution and poverty. And there are no gut-wrenching images of refugees drowning while trying to swim or smuggle their way across 3,000 miles of open sea.
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Still, a spokesman for the National Security Council said Monday the U.S. was “actively considering” steps to alleviate the situation in Europe, where more than 340,000 people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia now have arrived. Beyond Syria, many are also fleeing parts of Iraq that are under the Islamic State group’s control.
The spokesman, Peter Boogaard, said the steps could include “refugee resettlement” and White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said a “range of approaches” was being studied. But as for taking more Syrians and others in, Earnest said, “There is a process for doing this.”
That process, as it currently stands, is slow. Refugees wait around three years to find out if they can move to the United States, meaning Washington wouldn’t be able to offer quick assistance. Throughout Syria’s 4½-year civil war, the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 Syrians — a tiny percentage of the 11.6 million people who have been chased out of the country or uprooted from their homes by the conflict.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a “concerted global effort” to assist the refugees, in an interview with The Associated Press. Washington has spearheaded such efforts previously.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. accepted more than 1 million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 1999, tens of thousands of mostly Muslim Kosovar Albanians were flown to the U.S., processed at Fort Dix in New Jersey and ultimately resettled. During the Iraq war, more than 50,000 refugees were allowed to come under a special, expedited program for people whose religious beliefs or past work for the U.S. military put their lives at risk.
But what those situations involved and Syria’s may lack is a sense of U.S. responsibility. Refugee operations in Southeast Asia followed years of U.S. warfare there, as did the decision to take in tens of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade. Many Americans will feel differently about taking large numbers of Syrians displaced by a war that the United States has tried hard to avoid.
Asked directly if the Obama administration felt responsible to share Europe’s refugee burden, Earnest stressed U.S. support thus far: $4 billion provided in humanitarian aid, more than any other country, and ongoing diplomatic work to resolve Syria’s conflict peacefully. The diplomacy appears nowhere near ending violence that started in 2011 with a government crackdown on political opponents, spawning an armed insurgency, and led to Islamic State extremists seizing much of the country.
Security concerns also run high, especially after two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky four years ago on charges they plotted to help kill American troops in Iraq. U.S. officials appeared to miss several security warnings. Lawmakers and presidential candidates have cited the case in opposing more Syrian refugees in the U.S.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, said the U.S. has “a responsibility as well, to protect the American people and our country. Terrorists have exploited the refugee process to sneak into our country in the past, and officials have warned my committee that we lack the on-the-ground intelligence in Syria needed to confidently vet individuals for resettlement.”
Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the U.S. was equipped to properly screen refugees fleeing Syria. “We have faith in our system’s ability to vet,” she said. Her group is among several pushing for the administration to raise by more than 40 percent the total number of refugees allowed in annually.
Those resettled in communities around the U.S. are treated as legal immigrants who are immediately eligible to work. They have to apply to become legal permanent residents and receive green cards within a year of arriving. They can later become citizens.