The United States is bracing to resettle nearly 9,000 Syrian refugees over the next several months after falling severely behind in the Obama administration's pledge to increase the number of families it accepts.
Halfway into the fiscal year, the U.S. has accepted only 1,285 new refugees, data released by the State Department revealed this week. That represents just 13 percent of refugees that the U.S. has agreed to accept, even after Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to the international community last fall that the administration would step up its commitment to protect the families fleeing from Syria’s six-year civil war. The brutal conflict has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
A lack of preparedness for the sudden increase in refugee applicants and resources to vet them led to backlogs in the process. In response, the administration has begun to ramp up operations, both at home and abroad, to review a greater volume of refugee applicants and stay on track to meet its commitments.
The boost in resources has federal agencies expecting that thousands of Syrian refugees would be cleared for travel to the U.S. by October -- weeks before the 2016 presidential election in which immigration has become a lightning rod.
The political response to the influx could turn ugly. Republican governors and presidential candidates have turned Syrian refugees into a political target in the face of mounting public fear over a string of horrific terror attacks. Questioning the strength of the vetting process that refugees face, some have actively tried to block newcomers from entering the U.S. A handful of states are fighting the courts for the right to ban refugee resettlement. Congress, meanwhile, has mulled various measures to ensure that the refugees able to resettle are moving to regions where they are unwelcome.
The heated and vocal opposition to resettling Syrian refugees is at odds with humanitarian advocates who say the U.S. should play a greater role in handling the crisis abroad. The administration’s pledge represents a minuscule fraction of the total 4.8 million Syrian refugees in need of resettlement. Many feel the U.S. should be accepting even more.
“The U.S. has not been leading on the resettlement of Syrian refugees for several years,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First.
Acer’s non-profit released a study this week targeting the staffing deficiencies and bottlenecks that have hamstrung the process of bringing a steady flow of refugees throughout the year. “The process has always moved slowly and been filled with inefficiencies and delays,” she said.
But the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have started to increase their capacity to interview refugee applicants in Jordan in a multi-layer review process that typically takes 18-24 months to complete in full. Final refugee interviews are expected to wrap up for many by the end of April, clearing the way for rounds of refugees to arrive in the U.S. by the fall.
The influx of new arrivals, far greater than the number of Syrian refugees that the U.S. has accepted in the past, is likely to become a major campaign issue for presidential candidates who have staked out their positions on opposite ends of the spectrum. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each called for the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees. Republican front-runner Donald Trump, in turn, has become notorious for suggesting that all non-American Muslims, particularly refugees from Syria, should be banned from traveling to the U.S.
Organizations set up to welcome refugees once they arrive to the U.S. stress that the partisan outcry is likely a vocal minority. Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, said her agency received an overwhelming number of calls from communities asking how they could help.
“These issues are being unnecessarily politicized when there is a deep groundswell of support from people,” she said.