President Obama wants the U.S. to take 30 percent more refugees next year, top administration officials told Congress on Tuesday, calling for Americans to do more on the world stage at a time when many voters are already balking at the current pace.
The announcement seems designed to boost Mr. Obama’s hand for next week, when he is scheduled to host a summit on the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly, pressing international leaders for action on a global refugee crisis.
At home, however, his refugee target is likely to renew controversy over the ability of the U.S. to absorb newcomers, particularly from countries where vetting is not easy and where terrorist networks have said they want to insert operatives into the refugee stream.
“The common-sense concerns of the American people are simply ignored as the administration expands its reckless and extreme policies,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry delivered the news to congressional leaders, along with Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials — part of the official consultation process that must take place before the target can go into effect.
The administration’s target for fiscal year 2017 is 110,000 refugees, up from the 85,000 goal in 2016 and 70,000 in 2015. Just a few weeks ago, the State Department was hinting at a target of 100,000 refugees next year, and it’s not clear why the additional 10,000 were added.
So far, no target has been set for Syrians — the most controversial population of refugees — but the administration said it expects a significantly higher number next year. At the current pace, some 30,000 could be approved for resettlement over the next 12 months.
“The United States is deeply committed to assisting some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” the department said in a statement. “As the secretary has said, this is who we are; this is America at its best.”
Officials have been approving applications at an astonishing rate as the administration tries to meet this year’s goal, with just 17 days left in the fiscal year. More than 3,600 refugees were admitted in one three-day stretch last week, including 600 Syrians, bringing the total to more than 77,000 as of Tuesday.
Congo has also seen a massive uptick in refugees over the last month, while admissions from Iraq, Bhutan and Myanmar remain strong.
The administration said it’s interested in boosting the number of refugees from Central America, where violence and poverty have created a wave of migrant families and children fleeing the region and trying to sneak into the U.S.
Communities are grappling with the influx of refugees, and the cost of housing and educating them.
The House Judiciary Committee is pushing legislation that would give local officials a say in whether they can handle an influx.
“We must remain compassionate toward refugees, but we also need to make sure that we use common sense,” said committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican. “Unfortunately, President Obama unilaterally increases the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year and gives little thought as to how it will impact local communities.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made the pace of refugees a major campaign issue, and has vowed to halt admissions from countries that have a connection to terrorism.
By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has vowed for the U.S. to increase its resettlement efforts, saying last year that the country should have taken 65,000 Syrian refugees this year.
Polling suggests the public leans in favor of accepting refugees, though at levels far below what Mr. Obama is proposing. A Brookings Institution survey taken in May found that when asked an open-ended question about how many the U.S. should resettle in 2017, the median answer among Democrats was 15,000, and the median answer among Republicans was just 10,000.
Still, support for taking refugees, including Syrians, nears 60 percent — as long as there is good screening to weed out potential security risks.
That’s a problem, according to the government’s top security officials, who have said Syrian refugees pose a particular problem because the U.S. doesn’t have access to databases or on-the-ground information there.
Without access to those databases, screeners will struggle to verify the backstories of refugees, the security officials said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that interviews refugees, insists its screeners are trained to ask probing questions and spot fraud, and have built up enough expertise in the country that they can detect bogus stories from applicants.
In the wake of terror attacks last year, the administration also began screening the social media accounts of some Syrian refugee applicants.
The administration’s announcement of more refugees comes on the same day that German authorities nabbed three Syrian refugees they said had ties to the Islamic State terrorist organization, also known by the acronym ISIS.
“ISIS will always exploit loopholes in our security, and the arrests in Germany remind us more than ever that partisanship cannot undermine our national security. This must stop,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.
An Iraqi-born refugee who entered the U.S. from Syria was indicted on terrorism-related charges earlier this year.