WASHINGTON -- Refugee resettlement groups are calling on President Barack Obama to nearly triple the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. by accepting 100,000 Syrians and 100,000 people from other nations in fiscal year 2016 -- up from 70,000 in the current fiscal year.
The proposed numbers would be a dramatic increase in response to a dramatic situation: Four million Syrians have fled their country, some of them dying en route to safety and a better life elsewhere.
While the U.S. has provided significant aid, it should also accept more people, according to refugee-focused organizations and religious groups including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Church World Service and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. These groups and a number of others plan to send a letter to Obama demanding a higher cap on the number of refugees the U.S. can take in.
"The world is facing its greatest refugee crisis almost ever, and the U.S. response has not been generous and has not been leading the way as we always have as a nation," said Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Her group started a petition last week asking Obama to do more to help Syrian refugees, which has received nearly 1,000 signatures so far.
"My own sense is that's not out of a lack of willingness to receive refugees in local communities, it's not for lack of compassion and care and a sense of urgency in local communities, in churches, in school, in workplaces -- it's really due to a lack of political will," Hartke said. "That's what needs to change."
The president sets the number of refugee admissions for each fiscal year in consultation with Congress. The U.S. has accepted about 1,500 refugees from Syria since the beginning of the war there in 2011, and expects to take in about 300 more by the end of FY 2015 on Sept. 30. That's out of the 33,000 total spots that were allocated for people from the Middle East and South Asia for the year.
But the current numbers simply aren't enough, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"That's a drop in the bucket," Appleby said. "With the refugees pouring into Europe, it's only natural that we should reach out and support our European partners and offer to take more."
The numbers that the groups are requesting are high, but not unprecedented. The U.S. admitted 215,000 refugees in the 1980 fiscal year, according to CQ Almanac. Many of the people admitted in the late 1970s were fleeing the turmoil that followed the Vietnam War.
If the U.S. wanted to admit that many people again, it could, said Erol Kekic, executive director of Church World Service's immigration and refugee program. He said the U.S. has "been absent from this crisis from the very beginning -- at least on the resettlement side -- and that's embarrassing, to put it mildly."
Officials announced last month that between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrians will be accepted in the next fiscal year, but the total figure for refugee admission has not yet been announced. National Security Council spokesman Peter Boogaard said Monday that "the administration is actively considering a range of approaches to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, including with regard to refugee resettlement."
Refugees are usually resettled with the help of religious and community groups, which help find them housing and jobs. Those groups say they would have the capacity to assist more people, if the government approved them. Catholic parishes have contacted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to see if they can take in people from Syria, as Pope Francis recently urged Catholics in Europe to do. Other refugee resettlement groups say they are also receiving more interest from people in the U.S. who want to help.
"Already all of us are getting calls from folks who aren't currently connected with us asking how they can help and what they can do," said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Efforts to bring in more refugees would face political opposition, largely from Republicans who say the new arrivals from Syria -- most of whom are Muslim -- could be terrorists. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Monday that although what's happening abroad is "a tragic situation," he "cannot support a program that could potentially bring jihadists into the United States."
Fear of terrorism complicates the refugee admissions process, since individuals must go through lengthy background checks. Given the urgency of the situation, advocates say the process should be reformed. The people who are admitted are typically the most vulnerable -- only about 1 percent of refugees are resettled each year -- and waiting prolongs the time they spend at risk, said Daryl Grisgraber, who works on Middle East issues for Refugees International.
"If the process for vetting these refugees is really slow and painful, a lot of them who have been deemed to be unsafe where they are are just left waiting in those unsafe situations," Grisgraber said. "Even though it's such a small number of people [compared to the total number of refugees], it's really important to do it in a timely manner, because we're talking about people who are in danger."