Welcoming the Next 10,000 Syrian Refugees

Get ready for the next wave.

Photographer: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

After a late-summer surge, the Obama administration has met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. The Republican House Freedom Caucus considers that 10,000 too many, preferring to stop resettling Syrians until the administration can “assure no terrorists or individuals with radical sympathies or views will be admitted.”

Such fears are largely misplaced. Few, if any, classes of travelers to the U.S. face greater scrutiny. Nevertheless, the process for admitting refugees from Syria can be tightened. And at least as important, the process of integrating them into American life can be improved.

To see how, it’s worth revisiting who these newcomers are and how they have made it here. Three-quarters have come via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which selected them from among the most vulnerable people languishing in refugee camps. Indeed, four-fifths of this year’s arrivals have been women and children; nearly half are under 18. That said, the possibility remains that some of the rest might be Islamic State recruits such as those who have blended into the refugee masses flowing toward Europe.

But consider the months-long gauntlet they would have had to run -- including face-to-face interviews with officers from the Department of Homeland Security, medical exams, screening through intelligence databases, and case referrals back in Washington. A terrorist leader looking to infiltrate operatives into the U.S. could no doubt find easier ways.

No screening process is foolproof, of course -- especially, as FBI Director James Comey has pointed out, when you’re dealing with people fleeing a war zone. Homeland Security needs more Arabic speakers to conduct interviews, and once refugees have arrived in the U.S., law enforcement and intelligence agencies could look harder for signs of radicalization and other trouble. The possibility that some newcomers might do harm exists among all immigrant groups, after all.

It’s also essential that the U.S. ensure that all the newcomers are successfully integrated, especially with the nation increasingly polarized by their arrival. For starters, the State Department needs to step up its efforts to ensure that local stakeholders are consulted on resettlement targets.

The U.S. planned to resettle 85,000 refugees from around the world this fiscal year, up from 70,000 the previous year; Secretary of State John Kerry just announced that next year, the U.S. proposes to admit 110,000. But funding for refugee assistance hasn’t kept up, in part because it’s based on past admissions. Considering the traumas Syrians have experienced, especially the children, more support is needed for mental health care and remedial education. Both the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services should begin collecting comprehensive data about which strategies and programs work best.

The benefits of such efforts flow both ways: Refugees go to the considerable strain of moving to the U.S. because they seek opportunities to work hard and improve their lives. Thus, they can be a boon to their new communities -- creating jobs, stabilizing shrinking school districts, revitalizing blighted neighborhoods, and helping communities thrive

On the other hand, consider the costs of denying entry to any more Syrian refugees. It would feed Islamic State’s narrative that the U.S. is anti-Muslim, and weaken America’s global leadership. Set next to the nearly half-million Syrian refugees the United Nations says need to be resettled over the next three years, 10,000 is a pretty modest figure. Set against the more than 3 million refugees the U.S. has admitted since 1975, it seems very small indeed.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.