By Nahal Toosi
September 13, 2016
President Barack Obama plans to admit 110,000 refugees from around the world to the United States over the next year — a figure that is 10,000 above his original goal and which immediately set off howls of protest from some Republicans.
The 110,000 figure is expected to include a substantial number of Syrian refugees, whose admission to the U.S. has sparked debate in the presidential race. Republican nominee Donald Trump wants to bar Syrian refugees completely, alleging that terrorists could be hiding among them.
At the same time, the 110,000 figure, which covers the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, is likely to disappoint many supporters of the refugee program, who have been urging the administration to take in as many as 200,000 displaced people from around the world.
A senior Obama administration official confirmed late Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry had briefed Congress earlier in the day about the administration's new plan. He noted that Kerry had said several months ago that the U.S. wanted to admit at least 100,000 refugees worldwide but that it would take more if it could.
The decision to go with 110,000 "is consistent with our belief that all countries should do more to help the world's most vulnerable people," the official said.
In an 82-page report to Congress obtained by POLITICO, the Obama administration said it will try to admit a “significantly higher” number of refugees from Syria during the next fiscal year than the 10,000 goal it set for the fiscal year that ends this month. The administration exceeded the 10,000 figure a month ahead of schedule.
“While the vast majority of Syrians would prefer to return home when the conflict ends, it is clear that some remain extremely vulnerable in their countries of asylum and would benefit from resettlement,” states the report, which was prepared by the departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
Some Republican lawmakers issued statements denouncing the plan on national security and other grounds.
“We must remain compassionate toward refugees, but we also need to make sure that we use common sense," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia. "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."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama and a top adviser to Trump, called Obama's plan "reckless and extreme."
"In addition to the very serious national security implications and the initial resettlement costs, admitting 110,000 refugees will result in an enormous long-term financial burden on the taxpayers," Sessions insisted.
The U.S. refugee resettlement program used to have strong bipartisan support, with lawmakers across the spectrum willing to accept desperate people escaping violence and persecution as a testament to America's generosity.
But the Syrian civil war, and a number of terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. blamed on migrants or the children of migrants has altered the calculus. A large number of Republicans now say admitting Syrian refugees could expose the U.S. to potential terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists who may have infiltrated the program.
The Obama administration has rejected that argument, pointing out that refugees are the most heavily screened people allowed to resettle in the United States, with many waiting for years to go through background checks. The administration also argues that rejecting refugees plays into the hands of Islamist terrorists who want to alienate Muslim populations from the West.
Next week, Obama is due to host a summit on refugees on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. He is expected to call on other countries to take in twice as many refugees as they do now, through traditional resettlement programs and other routes, such as work or student visas.
Refugee advocates have thus called on Obama to double America's own commitment to refugee resettlement. But a 200,000 figure was never likely, in large part because even though the administration can set the number, Congress controls the funding for the program.
This past fiscal year, Obama raised the number of refugees admitted to the United States from 70,000 to 85,000. That included more than 10,000 Syrians. But overall the U.S. admits a tiny fraction of the world's refugees. There are at least 4.8 million Syrian refugees. Worldwide, a record 65 million people are currently displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations.
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