On September 10, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced that the United States would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the following 12 months. The new policy was greeted in Europe and the Middle East as a small but welcome step in addressing the worst humanitarian disaster in a generation, in which more than 4 million people have fled the country in less than five years. Since the announcement, however, the United States has resettled only 841 Syrians on its soil. If the current rate continues, it will take four years to reach Obama’s relatively modest goal.
It’s common for resettlement numbers to start low and increase by the end of the fiscal year. Still, the difficulty the administration will have in admitting a mere 10,000 Syrians in a single year underscores the deep political challenges facing the Obama administration in responding to the ongoing Syrian civil war. In the months since the announcement, high-profile terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have stoked anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and the already onerous refugee resettlement application process has become even more stringent for Syrians. Despite this, the State Department says it still plans to meet its goal.
“We remain steadfastly committed to the President’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in FY [fiscal year] 2016,” said Lawrence Bartlett, director of the State Department’s Office of Refugee Admissions, in a statement to The Nation. “We have met our admissions goals for each of the last three years, and we are on target to meet the goal of admitting 10,000 refugees from Syria and 85,000 refugees from all over the world, by the end of this fiscal year.” (The State Department didn’t set specific goals for Syrian refugees until this year, and only 1,682 were admitted in FY 2015.)
Bartlett added that to meet the new goal, “from February through April, additional staff will be posted to Jordan, where they will conduct and support interviews of 10,000 UNHCR-referred refugee applicants,” referring to the UN’s refugee agency. In addition to the new efforts in Jordan, Barlett said the United States “will restart Department of Homeland Security refugee resettlement interviews in Beirut, Lebanon on February 18, 2016.” The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Still, it’s unlikely that any of the refugees who begin the screening process this month would be able to travel to the United States by October, the end of the fiscal year. The UN’s refugee agency “had already referred nearly twice the 10,000 target before the beginning of the fiscal year and many of these refugees have been in the pipeline for some time,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program. The challenge is getting refugees through this pipeline, a byzantine process that takes Syrians refuges, on average, 18 to 24 months, and often longer.
All refugees hoping to relocate to the United States face a strict background-check process, and Syrians are subject to an additional round of scrutiny. Sometimes the long waits aren’t due to any specific security concern but bureaucratic complications. In addition to the DHS, federal agencies, including the State Department, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Defense Department, each run background checks, including medical examinations, on all refugee applicants. “There are many agencies that all have to concur on an individual’s clearance for travel [to this country], and those different security checks have different validity periods,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “So what we’ll see is a vicious cycle where to get everyone on the same file with all of their clearances lined up can take a long time.” Fisher says she hears from the government that the numbers will increase in the coming months, and hopes the security checks will be streamlined without sacrificing any accuracy.
Some observers suggest that the anti-refugee political climate has given law-enforcement and intelligence agencies a massive incentive to exclude potential candidates in the name of national security. Last summer, the world was gripped by horrific stories of refugees dying at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The photo of Alan Kurdi, a 2-year-old child who drowned and washed up on a Turkish shore in September, brought international sympathy to the plight of refugees fleeing violence. Shortly after that photograph went viral, the Obama administration announced its 2016 admissions goal. The attacks in Paris in November, carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants, largely reversed public opinion in the United States and Europe, casting refugees not as asylum seekers but as potential terrorists.
In the United States, 31 governors responded to the Paris attacks by claiming, without legal basis, that their states were closed to any Syrian refugees. Texas’ attorney general brought a lawsuit against the federal government to prevent resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the state, and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy welcomed a Syrian family after Indiana Governor Mike Pence rejected them. Donald Trump has repeatedly called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
More recently, state lawmakers have begun to take up the issue in local legislatures as well. In South Dakota, one legislator plans to reintroduce a bill to ban refugees from the state after a similar bill was withdrawn earlier this month. Just this week, an Arizona House panel passed a measure that would purport to allow the state to deny entry to refugees. In Florida, state legislators are weighing a bill that would give the governor authority to use “military force” against “invaders” unless the refugee “was born in the Western Hemisphere.” The proposal cleared a Florida House subcommittee along party lines, but has little chance of becoming law, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Florida Governor Rick Scott previously said he would not allow Syrian refugees to be settled in Florida.
Should any of these bills become law, it’s unlikely they would stand up in court. “State legislatures have the same power to bar particular groups of refugees from entering their states as governors—which is to say, none,” Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at American University, said in an e-mail to The Nation. “Because federal law leaves refugee resettlement up to the exclusive purview of the federal government, state laws purporting to categorically forbid resettlement of particular refugees would violate the Supremacy Clause” of the Constitution.
Even if governors and state lawmakers don’t have the legal authority to prevent resettlement, they can create a dangerous and uncertain environment for refugees, especially Syrians. In the case of the family that was supposed to go to Indiana, Governor Mike Pence’s threats were enough to make Exodus Refugee Immigration, the organization helping with their resettlement, conclude that Indianapolis wasn’t the best place for the family. “While that’s not the governor’s purview to do that they indicated at the state level that they wouldn’t provide services,” Carleen Miller, the executive director, told The Guardian. Local battles like that will only make Obama’s goal more difficult in practice.
And even if the United States does allow 10,000 Syrians in this year, compared to other wealthy countries, Obama’s resettlement commitment is a drop in the bucket. Canada, for instance, accepted 17,862 Syrians between November 4, 2015, and February 8, 2016, with the overall goal of resettling 25,000 in FY 2016. Germany accepted more than a million refugees in 2015, some 40 percent of them from Syria. To date, the United States has accepted fewer than 3,000 Syrian refugees in all.
In November, at the height of the anti-Syrian backlash, Obama spoke eloquently about the United States’ history as a country of immigrants. “As long as I’m president we’re going to keep on stepping up and make sure America remains as it’s always been: a place where people, who in other parts of the world are subject to discrimination or violence, that they have in America a friend and a place of refuge,” he said.
For thousands of Syrians stuck in limbo, that promise has yet to be fulfilled.