Human rights groups say President Obama’s opening bid of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees next year is far too timid in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe playing out in the Middle East, and even his own party colleagues in Congress are preparing to raise him tenfold, calling for the U.S. to take in 100,000 Syrians.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, warn that the U.S. isn’t nearly prepared to vet the refugees, and say radicalized Muslims are certain to use the program to try to gain a foothold in the U.S.
Trapped in the middle is Mr. Obama, who finds himself once again struggling with a migration issue and unable to satisfy either side.
“The U.S. should answer the call made by Pope Francis to welcome migrants around the world with humanity and generosity,” said Miriam Yeung, co-chair of We Belong Together, a campaign to mobilize women in support of pro-immigration policies.
The pope has asked Catholic churches in Europe to take in refugees, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeated that call here ahead of the pontiff’s visit next week, when he is expected to appeal to the U.S. to be more generous in migration issues across the board.
Mr. Obama last week acknowledged the crisis as “not just a European problem, it’s a world problem” — but suggested the solution lies in a better response to the pressures that have pushed more than 4 million Syrians to flee their homes.
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“The United States needs to do our share. I said that we should establish a floor of at least 10,000 refugees that we’re willing to accept, and cut through some of the bureaucracy and red tape to do that,” he said at a Sept. 11 commemoration event. “Ultimately, though, as you well know, it is really important for us to go to the source. This refugee crisis is prompted by the collapse of governance in Syria and the growth of [the Islamic State] and the cruelty that Assad is perpetrating on his own people.”
A political solution to the 4-year-old crisis has proved elusive, however, and analysts say the situation on the ground continues to trend away from U.S. interests. Hopes that the nuclear deal with Iran would soften the Islamic republic’s support for President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria have faded, and Russia appears to be extending its commitment to back Mr. Assad.
Mr. Obama’s inability to wrangle a diplomatic solution has contributed to concerns among Republicans that he’s overmatched and trying to manage the crisis by accepting more refugees rather than to defuse it.
Mr. Obama sent administration officials to Capitol Hill last week to consult officially with Congress about the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in 2016 — a requirement under the law if the president plans to change the level. The administration wants to raise the cap from 70,000 this year to 75,000 next year, with about 10,000 of those coming from Syria.
But Senate Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the officials hinted they could boost the 75,000 cap even higher once the new fiscal year begins.
Mr. Grassley insisted the administration must go through new consultations if it wants to raise the cap again.
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“Before agreeing to accept thousands of Syrian refugees, the Obama administration must prove to the American people that it will take the necessary precautions to ensure that national security is a top priority,” Mr. Grassley wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry demanding answers about the U.S. vetting process.
Despite the president’s vow to cut red tape, the White House has said there won’t be “any shortcuts” in the screening process, and said those applying now might not even be admitted until the end of the next fiscal year.
The Arab American Institute said the U.S. has admitted 1,243 Syrian refugees since the country’s crisis began in 2011. The institute said the debate is being swayed by “a small group of members of Congress” who are objecting on security grounds.
Overall, the U.S. took in 70,000 refugees in 2014, and that is the cap for 2015 as well.
Two top Democrats in Congress, however, say the cap should be raised to 200,000 for next year, with 100,000 of those slots dedicated to Syrians.
“It is time for the United States to join the global community for a humanitarian response,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, top Democrat on the immigration subcommittee. “We should do our part by admitting 200,000 refugees, with 100,000 reserved for refugees from Syria.”
The issue has been injected into the presidential campaign after former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said the U.S. should accept 65,000 refugees.
On Sunday, Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, declined to state a target number when asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I think it’s impossible to give a proper number until we understand the dimensions of the problem,” Mr. Sanders said.