POLITICS

Nancy Pelosi: Increasing U.S. Refugee Cap By 5,000 Is 'Far Too Low'

The U.S. is reportedly considering raising the number of refugees it accepts in fiscal year 2016 by 5,000.
WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that increasing the number of refugees the U.S. takes in next fiscal year by 5,000 would be "far too low a figure."

The California Democrat said she has yet to discuss legislation for raising the number with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), but stressed the issue as a "really important one."

The U.S. is under mounting pressure to take in more refugees in the coming fiscal year, particularly Syrians, who are fleeing their home country in record numbers. The Obama administration needs to set refugee admissions for fiscal year 2016 by month's end. The U.S. has set a total admission number of 70,000 for the past three fiscal years, but Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday the U.S. is "committed to increasing the number of refugees that we take." 

In a meeting with lawmakers that day, Kerry said he wants to increase admissions by at least 5,000, to a total of up to 75,000, and is hoping to go even higher, according to a Senate aide.   

The U.S. has admitted only 1,500 Syrians since the beginning of the conflict there in 2011, in part because of a slow vetting process that takes between 18 and 24 months to approve refugees. The U.S. government does contribute significant aid to migrant camps and other efforts to help displaced Syrians -- about $4 billion so far, according to the administration.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Thursday that the president has instructed his team to prepare for at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, although the full number of refugee admissions has not yet been set. He said the best solution, though, is to continue humanitarian assistance.  

"We know the scale of this problem. It's significant," Earnest said. "And there are millions of people who have been driven from their homes because of this violence. ... It certainly is not feasible for millions of Syrians to come to this country, but what we can do is make sure that we are doing everything we can to provide for their basic needs."

Pelosi pointed to the Vietnam War as a precedent in her remarks on Thursday morning, saying that the U.S. took some "14,000 refugees a month" at that time, setting the bar for other countries.

"We see Germany taking the lead on this. I hope that other countries will follow suit and that we will do something more substantial," Pelosi said. "This is a subject we have to discuss." 

Boehner placed some blame on the administration's handling of the Islamic State militant group for exacerbating the refugee crisis. "How we deal with it and what our role is in trying to help resolve it, frankly, is unclear to me at this moment," he said on Wednesday. 

In an effort to spur action, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is asking colleagues to sign on to a letter that urges the U.S. to admit at least 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016, he told HuffPost on Wednesday. The International Rescue Committee reiterated its call last week for the U.S. to accept at least that number of Syrians, and 14 senators asked for the same in a letter to the administration in May.

"I certainly appreciate the secretary's proposal to increase by 5,000, but it's clear to me that that does not respond to the urgency of the current situation and the responsibility the United States has to do its part," Cicilline said. 
 
"We're a country of 320 million people," he continued, "so if you add 65,000 refugees, it would make up 0.0002 percent of our population. ... I think, frankly, when you look at the size of our country and the population and the resources that we have, that's not an unreasonable amount to increase by, and we should do it."
 
A number of lawmakers in both chambers have also called for increasing the number of refugees the U.S. accepts.
 
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said the U.S. has an obligation to take in more.
 
"We need an emergency appropriation to be able to help the refugee organizations that are being overwhelmed," Graham said on Tuesday. "It's in our national security interests to get ahead of this problem. My goal is to make sure they don't have to flee their country. They're not coming here because they want to. Women are coming here because they're being raped. Christians are coming here because they're being subject to genocide. People leaving Syria are fleeing tyranny, not to get jobs."
 
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said the U.S. has a "moral obligation to take care of what is clearly one of the biggest humanitarian crises in a generation," but wouldn't comment on how many additional people should be given admission. 
 
Refugee-focused organizations say the U.S. should take in even more people, and are planning to send a letter to the president urging the administration to admit 100,000 Syrians next fiscal year, along with 100,000 people from other countries. 
 
Earnest said Thursday that increasing refugee numbers to the levels some are proposing would require a major increase in funding.

"To scale up to a degree that some members of Congress may have in mind would have some significant fiscal consequences," he said. "The background check process that I described before is work-intensive and requires a lot of trained manpower, and so Congress would need to make a significant financial commitment to ramping up along those lines."
 
This story has been updated to include comment from White House press secretary Josh Earnest. 
 
Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.