A top Republican lawmaker warned Wednesday President Obama may be preparing to open “the floodgates” for Syrian war refugees to enter the U.S., even as the administration’s top spy said intelligence officials have a “huge concern” the Islamic State aims to hide terrorists among the waves of people fleeing the conflict in the heart of the Middle East.
With the U.S. and governments across Europe struggling to manage the flood of people fleeing the region’s chaos, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said after a briefing from senior administration officials he feared that Mr. Obama may try to skirt federal law requiring consultation with Congress before raising the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
“[Secretary of State John F. Kerry] initially said that the Obama administration is seeking a reasonable increase in the refugees allowed into the United States in the upcoming fiscal year,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement. “But when pressed, the administration indicated that they were considering opening the floodgates and using emergency authority to go above what they proposed to Congress in today’s consultation.”
Sources close to Wednesday’s closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill said Mr. Kerry told Mr. Grassley and other lawmakers that the administration is planning to boost America’s total quota for resettling refugees from 70,000 to 75,000 next year and that the number could fluctuate depending on a range of factors, including the intensity of Syria’s war.
The 70,000 figure, meanwhile, accounts for refugees welcomed into the U.S. from other nations worldwide — not just from Syria. The Obama administration has so far taken fewer than 2,000 of the estimated 4 million Syrians exiled by the brutal four-year-old civil war.
Separately, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence are increasingly concerned about the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate waves of refugees flooding into European countries.
“We don’t obviously put it past the likes of [the Islamic State] to infiltrate operatives among these refugees,” Mr. Clapper said during a rare public appearance at an annual U.S. intelligence community conference.
While he added that U.S. authorities have a “pretty aggressive” system for screening the backgrounds of those seeking entry into the United States, Mr. Clapper said he’s not so confident about the capabilities of some European nations who are now inundated by waves of new refugees.
One senior official who spoke on background at the State Department said “our primary goal when speaking about Syrian refugees is to get them home again, so that there can be peace in Syria and that they can return home in peace.”
Other officials said any increases beyond 75,000 will only be made in accordance with federal law.
In his own remarks after Wednesday’s meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Kerry said only that “we are looking hard at the number that we can specifically manage with respect to the crisis in Syria and Europe.”
The White House on Tuesday acknowledged that the U.S., along with other nations across the Middle East and Europe, must do more to alleviate the worsening refugee crisis.
According to the United Nations, the majority of those fleeing Syria have ended up in nearby nations, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Nearly 2 million have moved to Turkey, which neighbors both Syria and Iraq to the north.
In Brussels, The Associated Press reported that European Union officials were imploring member countries Wednesday to share the burden of refugees flooding the continent, but the numbers involved were small compared with the half-million who have already arrived and the hundreds of thousands more on their way.
With Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans often hoping to settle in wealthy nations like Germany and Sweden, the EU is struggling find a fairer solution that would also send more refugees to less-desirable and less-welcoming places such as Slovakia and the Baltics.
Hours after EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Europe had a historic duty to act and relocate 160,000 who have arrived in overwhelmed Hungary, Greece and Italy, a number of Eastern European and Baltic states vowed to reject the imposition of any kind of quotas from Brussels, the AP reported.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.