The Obama administration is considering resettling some refugees who have escaped war-torn Syria in the United States, a development first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday and later confirmed by the State Department.
According to the Times, the resettlement of the refugees would be “part of an international effort that could bring thousands of Syrians to American cities and towns.”
The Times reports [emphasis added]:
A resettlement plan under discussion in Washington and other capitals is aimed at relieving pressure on Middle Eastern countries straining to support 1.6 million refugees, as well as assisting hard-hit Syrian families.
The State Department is “ready to consider the idea,” an official from the department said, if the administration receives a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the usual procedure.
The United States usually accepts about half the refugees that the U.N. agency proposes for resettlement. California has historically taken the largest share, but Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are also popular destinations.
UN, government and non-governmental representatives are meeting this week in Geneva to discuss the resettlement options, according to the Times.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked for details about the resettlement plan at the department’s Monday briefing.
“Well, let me first say the preferred solution for the vast majority of refugees is to return home once it is safe. We are in close contact with the UN on the need for resettlement of refugees from countries of first asylum throughout the world,” Psaki said.
“The United States accepts more UN-referred refugees than all other countries combined, and we are aware, and we would – and the UN is aware that the U.S. would consider any individuals referred to us to have been determined to be in need of resettlement. So we are prepared to respond if asked, and will encourage other resettlement countries to do the same,” she added.
While she wouldn’t specify the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. would be willing to resettle, she explained that Congress caps the number of refugees at 70,000 in total.
“So the way it would work would be if a specific country is added to the list of refugees where we would accept their refugees, which the U.S. is certainly open to – but let me just reiterate that the preferred solution for the vast majority is to return to their country once it’s safe,” Psaki said.
The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR on Tuesday said it was talking to Germany about resettling up to 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Though the refugee problem is a serious humanitarian issue – with most having fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – moving some of them to the U.S. would create challenges. First, how to vet applicants from a country where so many jihadi and al Qaeda activists are present. Secondly, would the lure of possible entry to the U.S. encourage other Syrians to leave their country, further straining their neighbors’ generosity and resources?
As the L.A. Times reports, “Two resettled Iraqis were convicted of trying to send arms to Al Qaeda from their home in Bowling Green, Ky.”
The paper describes political challenges as well:
Congress strongly resisted accepting Iraqi refugees, including interpreters who had worked with U.S. forces, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Most lawmakers share White House caution about getting more engaged in Syria and may have little appetite for a major influx.
But Susan Rice, President Obama’s new national security advisor, and Samantha Power, Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., both have been strong advocates for refugees. They may make the White House more receptive to at least a partial opening.
The L.A. Times points out that the Department of Homeland Security requires “careful vetting of refugees, with multiple interviews and background checks before they are allowed to enter the country.” That process, “under normal circumstances,” can take a year or more.