U.S. will help, a little.

Photographer: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

White House Refugee Plan Overwhelmed by Syrian Exodus

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Obama administration is preparing to announce a plan to admit more refugees over the next two years, but at this point the numbers being proposed are too small to relieve the crisis streaming out of Syria.

Wednesday at the White House, the most senior national security officials will discuss raising the limit on the number of refugees from around the world allowed to enter the United States -- from 70,000 this year to 85,000 next year and 100,000 in fiscal 2017, three administration officials told me. If members of the National Security Council Principals Committee agree on the plan, it will be sent to President Obama’s desk, and administration sources say he is likely to quickly approve it.

The plan has the strong support of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, whose priorities often differ on the Syria issue. McDonough is focused on the fight against ISIS. Power wants to confront Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and do more to protect the civilians being killed by both.

The throngs of desperate migrants fleeing Syria and the images of children washing up on European shores have spurred the Obama administration into action, officials said.

The problem with the plan, no matter how quickly adopted, is how long it will take to have any effect. Migrants applying for refugee asylum in the United States now will not have their applications considered until at least 2017 because of a long backlog. And once an application begins to be considered, the asylum seekers can face a further 18 to 24 months before they are granted or denied asylum.

President Obama spoke about the refugee crisis Tuesday at the White House alongside the king of Spain. He said it was important for the U.S. to “take our share” of Syrian refugees and reinforced his pledge to allow 10,000 more into the country than previously planned in 2016.

“This is going to require cooperation with all the European countries and the United States and the international community in order to ensure that people are safe; that they are treated with shared humanity; and that we ultimately have to deal with the source of the problem, which is the ongoing crisis in Syria,” he said.

Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the policy process was underway to determine what exactly the asylum caps would be. He also acknowledged that whatever was decided, there was little chance that refugees fleeing Syria today would be able to enter the U.S. any time soon. The U.S. has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began.  

“It’s not clear to me that anybody would be able to make their way through this process before the end of the next fiscal year if they’re just applying today,” he said.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman convened a high-level meeting at the State Department to elicit other ideas for dealing with the mounting refugee crisis.

Human rights experts said that the United Nations has already referred over 16,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for vetting, and the 10,000 increase would come almost exclusively from the backlog of Syrians who have already applied, not the people who are fleeing now.

“Becoming a U.S. refugee is not an immediate protection option,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “These numbers are a good start, but they are woefully inadequate, unbelievably late, and not a substitute for a policy that would ensure better protection for Syrians.”

Part of the problem, she said, is that the U.S. government has not addressed the growing refugee crisis for several years and is just now rushing to action. In its last budget request, the administration requested $2.45 billion for migration and refugee assistance -- $600 million less than what Congress appropriated the year before. The $2.45 billion request is up from seeking $2.05 billion the year before. If Congress passes a continuing resolution, the funding would remain flat.

Officials say that there is resistance inside the government to taking in more refugees. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration are overstretched already and fear not having enough money and people to keep up with an asylum expansion.

The politics of increasing refugee caps, even marginally, are also a problem for the White House. Democrats are asking the administration to take in significantly higher numbers of refugees. Top Republican lawmakers and a slew of presidential candidates have said recently that taking in more Syrian refugees presents a national security risk.

“I take ISIS at its word when it said … we’ll use the refugee crisis to infiltrate the West. That concerns me,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul on ABC’s "This Week." “We don’t have the systems in place on the ground in Syria to properly vet these individuals. We don’t know who they are.”

Not all Republicans are sounding the terrorism alarm. Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, told me he is working with Senator Patrick Leahy on an emergency appropriations package for addressing the Syrian refugee crisis.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what would be. We should take our fair share,” Graham said. “We are the good guys and gals. We’re supposed to be open minded about this.”

The White House, Democrats and Republicans all seem to agree that the only real way to solve the refugee crisis is to solve the Syrian civil war, but there’s no political resolution in sight and the administration has no intention of pushing the military balance against the Assad regime. The Syrian refugee crisis is going to continue and get much worse before it gets better.

The concern is that the White House, after announcing this new plan, will not try to do more. By announcing a modest increase over the next two years, and pledging to vet applicants closely, the president may succeed at navigating the politics of asylum, but the Syrian refugee crisis will only grow. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net