WASHINGTON ― The United States is on track to admit President Barack Obama’s goal of 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, in spite of resistance from Republican politicians and virulent anti-refugee fearmongering from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
About 8,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since last October ― more than three-quarters of them women and children ― and the administration expects to admit at least 2,000 more by the end of September, when the 2016 fiscal year ends, officials announced on Friday.
There has been significant pushback against admitting Syrian refugees, especially from Republican politicians who argue they’re unvetted and potentially terrorists. More than half of the nation’s governors tried last year to ban Syrian refugees from their states, although they were not able to do so, and Congress passed legislation to pressure government officials to turn Syrian and Iraqi refugees away.
Trump has made calls to keep out Syrian refugees central to his presidential campaign, including in an extended rant during a Thursday rally in Maine. Last December he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” prompting criticism from within his own party. More recently, in what he called an “expansion” of that plan, he said he would block people from countries “compromised by terrorism.”
Syria fits that bill ― which is part of the reason so many people there have fled their homes or left the country entirely. There are more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees in total, meaning even the 10,000-person goal set by the president is only a tiny fraction of them. (The government has also contributed resources to help Syrian refugees overseas.)
The Obama administration forged ahead despite the resistance.
Of the 8,000 Syrian refugees admitted so far this fiscal year, nearly 4,600 were under the age of 18, Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said on a call with reporters. Overall, 78 percent were either women or children, she said. More than 99 percent of the Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. this fiscal year were Muslims, who also make up the vast majority of the Syrian population.
Not every Syrian screened has been admitted. Most refugees are referred from the United Nations Refugee Agency, which initially screens them. Syrian refugees then go through additional steps to the already extensive vetting process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director León Rodriguez told reporters. It includes interviews with officers, review of social media accounts and review by the departments of State and Homeland Security, with help from the FBI and intelligence agencies.
Hundreds of Syrians have been rejected during the process, and others have been put on hold because concerns about their credibility, Rodriguez said. He said he wanted to rebut the “widely held view” that Syrian refugees cannot be vetted. That claim is often attributed to FBI Director James Comey, although in the quote in question he never says vetting is impossible, but rather that it would be impossible to guarantee a risk-free screening process, despite recent improvements.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters earlier this week that his agency has increased resources to meet the goal of resettling more Syrian refugees.
“The process is still a very thorough, time-consuming process for each refugee applicant ... and we have not shortcut the process,” he said at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.