The U.S. is well-prepared to assist the thousands of Syrian refugees that President Obama plans to resettle in the country, federal immigration officials signaled Thursday, as some Republicans raised concern about the risk of terrorism.
The U.S. has a long tradition of helping foreigners who seek asylum and funds will be available to help them resettle, officials from the State Department, Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. They also assured senators that no shortcuts would be taken in their security clearance process.
The resettlement program focuses on refugees with immediate need who do not pose a security threat, said Larry Bartlett, admissions director at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. They are, Bartlett said, subjected to more intense security than any other travelers.
“The program enjoys substantial support from state and local governments, as well as community members,” he said.
Obama has pledged to take in at least 10,000 refugees fleeing war-torn Syria for the fiscal year that began Thursday. This week, he ordered the ceiling for the number of total refugee admissions to be raised from 70,000 to 85,000.
Barbara Strack, chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testified that her agency, which conducts security checks of applicants, has met the refugee admission ceiling of 70,000 for three years in a row.
“When I meet with new officers joining the refugee corps, I talk with them about the United States’ long-standing tradition of offering protection to those fleeing prosecution,” she said.
However, U.S. agencies have often struggled to clear refugees through a vetting process that takes 18 to 24 months.
Conservatives have voiced concern about the security risk that refugees from countries infiltrated by terrorists may pose.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, chairman of the subcommittee, criticized plans to increase the number of refugees accepted by the U.S. to at least 100,000 next year. Such an increase, he said, would further stretch public benefits and outpace the security screening process refugees are required to undergo.
He also cited recent data from the Pew Research Center that shows the near-record growth of foreign-born residents, who now account for 14% of the U.S. population.
“The situation in Syria and throughout the Middle East is a serious one,” Sessions said. “It cannot be solved with immigrating large numbers of people from that region.”
Another Republican committee member, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, recalled the February slaying of four people, a case in which the suspect had been granted special immigration status.
The State Department spent about $3 billion in the last fiscal year to help resettle refugees.
Sessions questioned how the country could afford to bring in more refugees. The witnesses said that some programs may be given lower priority to find additional funds.
Human rights groups and some Democrats have called upon the U.S. to admit more Syrians. About 1,300 have been brought to the U.S. since the war there began in 2011.
“In light of this global emergency situation, we urge the United States to lead a comprehensive global initiative in partnership with European and other states to improve access to protection for refugees,” Human Rights First, a Washington-based group, wrote in a letter to the subcommittee.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said experience has shown that the country can resettle refugees and deal with security concerns.
On the day last week that Pope Francis told Congress to respond to the refugee crisis in a “humane, just and fraternal” way, 18 mayors wrote to Obama, expressing their willingness to accept Syrian refugees in their cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Allentown, Pa. More than 3,800 Syrians already live in Lehigh County, where Allentown is located.
More than 4 million Syrians are estimated to have fled since the uprising began against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Many headed to Europe, largely driving a global refugee crisis not seen since World War II, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The crisis has further exposed division among European Union members. Among countries that are opening their borders, Germany has agreed to take 800,000 Syrians, while France and Britain have each pledged to accept 20,000.