The White House will prepare to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the upcoming fiscal year as many members of Capitol Hill grapple with how to manage a crisis that has left 4 million Syrians displaced.
In the press briefing Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest announced that President Obama has informed his team he would like to “scale up” U.S. efforts to take in refugees from Syria, a move that will alarm Republicans on Capitol Hill who fear that accepting refugees from the country could pose a security risk.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis that calls out for problem solving and solution, but I want to have information that makes sure that we are not inadvertently bringing in people who intend to do us harm,” says Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker.
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas says he also has concerns that raising the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States will have unintended consequences.
“The problem with addressing this in that kind of way is that you encourage much more to come,” Roberts says.
Obama must make his determination on refugees by Sept. 30, when his new proclamation is due. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss the target numbers with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The U.S. government set a target to accept a total of 70,000 refugees in 2015 from around the world, and just more than 30,000 from the Middle East. Earmarking 10,000 slots for Syrians represents an increase from the 1,500 Syrian refugees that the U.S. has allowed so far, but a number far short of what more than a dozen Senate Democrats had been advocating for. In a letter this spring, Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked the president to increase the number of Syrian refugees to 65,000 by the end of 2016–roughly half of what the U.N. estimated would need to be resettled.
It does not appear the president is willing to go that far. Members are also grappling with what else the administration could do to alleviate pressure on European countries that have taken in the majority of refugees.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, says the White House needs to address the issue “upstream” to ensure the humanitarian crisis does not grow as the civil war in Syria rages on.
“I think we have all made big mistakes,” Kaine said. “I think it would have been much better to have created a safe haven in Syria to have them not have to flee.”
Kaine has advocated for creating humanitarian safe zones since he visited Lebanon in 2014.
Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that in upcoming months he would like to see Congress to take a bigger role. His committee plans to hold its first hearing on the refugee crisis next week.
“We are going to begin delving in,” Corker says. “You are going to see some more assertive policy components pursued by people on both sides of the aisle.”
While the president determines the target number of refugees, the White House will still need congressional buy-in to finance such a growing refugee program. It remains unclear if a Republican-controlled Congress would support it.
Sen. John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that while the president may make the determination on the number of refugees, only Congress can allocate the funds to actually support resettlement programs. He argued that Congress would be taking a close look at the president’s plan and determining whether it wanted to support it financially.
“I want to make sure that we have the proper safeguards that no ISIS people will be infiltrated with them,” McCain said. “The president has to have money to spend to bring the refugees in. If he doesn’t have the money to do so, then he can’t do it.”
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