Can the U.S. Handle 100,000 Syrian Refugees?
Policy + Politics

Can the U.S. Handle 100,000 Syrian Refugees?

© Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

While much of Washington is occupied with the Iran nuclear deal, another debate is looming about whether the U.S. should open its doors to more refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina raised the possibility on Tuesday that Congress might approve emergency funding to greatly increase the U.S. quota for Syrian refugees in the face of an historic migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East.

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During an appearance before the National Press Club, Graham became the first GOP presidential candidate to urge the Obama administration to accept its “fair share” of Syrian refugees, amid international criticism that the U.S. is grossly shirking its responsibility to the international community. In a fit of melodrama, Graham said that “we should take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down” if the U.S. preserves its current, highly restrictive immigration policies with regards to victims of Syrian violence.

Graham is chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, which means he has some say over the budget for the State Department and other international agencies. He said he would be in favor of “emergency spending” to cover the cost of bringing substantially more Syrian immigrants to the U.S., which would add to the federal deficit. He said he would confer with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on his subcommittee, to sound him out on a possible bipartisan proposal.

“I don’t just want to pick a number,” Graham said, according to Roll Call. “I don’t know how many we should take, I don’t know how much money we should spend, but I know we should take our fair share and we need to spend more to get ahead of this.”

The U.S. currently allows the immigration of no more than 1,500 Syrians a year – a miniscule number in the face of the millions of refugees streaming out of Syria, headed for Germany and other European countries. The United States Committee for Refugee and Immigrants has urged the administration to accept 100,000 Syrians in the coming year.

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Administration officials hinted yesterday that the U.S. might be moving towards a liberalization of the quota, according to The New York Times, and that a State Department working group was “actively considering a range of options.” Secretary of State John Kerry met this morning with the House and Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the problem.

The current quota is so minimal in part because of requirements that immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. undergo intensive security background checks that often take months or years to complete.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another GOP presidential candidate, issued a statement yesterday that “it doesn’t make sense from a logistical or a security standpoint” for the U.S. to welcome large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East “if the ultimate goal is to return [migrants] to their homes, which I believe it should be.”

However, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said yesterday that he was “open” to allowing more refugees into the United States, depending on the details of such a move. “I don’t know what the right number is, but we want to be careful terrorists don’t take advantage ... to infiltrate themselves among the very innocent people that would also be coming,” Rubio said, according to Roll Call.

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Billionaire Donald Trump, the GOP presidential frontrunner, said Tuesday evening that the U.S. should accept more refugees from Syria because of the “unbelievable humanitarian problem,” according to CNN. He cautioned that while the migrants could pose a security risk, the U.S. may have no choice but to open its borders to more Middle Eastern refugees.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, seconded Trump’s concern about threats to U.S. security if the quota is expanded during an appearance on C-SPAN.

“I would want to see exactly what is put in place in terms of making sure everyone is vetted properly,” he said. “We have a completely broken immigration system and we need to fix it”

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters yesterday, “The international community is looking at the United States right now to determine what additional steps we can take to try to confront, or help Europe confront, this difficult challenge.”

He added that “We’re certainly mindful of the urgency around increasing the resources and response.”