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Lawmakers Must Do More to Respond to Refugee Crisis, State Department Says

Congress has the responsibility to increase funding for a refugee resettlement program, a senior State Department official said this week, rejecting criticism from humanitarian groups that the Obama administration has not acted swiftly enough to admit more Syrian refugees into the country.

“There has to be political will not just on the part of the administration, but on the Congress to fund a resettlement program,” said Kelly Gauger, deputy director for refugee admissions at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. “We need significantly more money than we’re getting now, and I am not sure that many of us have confidence that we’re going to get that money from this Congress.”

Earlier this month, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Patrick J. Leahy, the chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for foreign aid, introduced legislation (S 2145) that would provide an additional $1 billion in humanitarian funding for refugees displaced by fighting in the Middle East. The measure has attracted support from Democratic senators such as Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, but has trailed in picking up Republican backing.

The bill, which would most likely be folded into any fiscal 2016 omnibus spending measure, would allow for some of the $1 billion to be redirected to the State Department-led U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which last year spent $1.1 billion resettling roughly 70,000 refugees from all over the world in the country.

“The U.S. refugee resettlement program is an extremely expensive endeavor,” Gauger said speaking at a Bipartisan Policy Center forum. The State official said her bureau last year spent about $400 million on the program. “We’re going to need even more in [fiscal] 2016 to bring in 85,000.”

Eighty-five thousand is the number of global refugees President Barack Obama told Congress are expected to be resettled in the United States in fiscal 2016. Humanitarian groups, religious leaders and a growing chorus of Democrats have called for 100,000 Syrians to be brought to the country next year, above and beyond the normal caps on global refugees.

But in order for that to happen, the U.N. program that refers refugees for resettlement in foreign countries will need to be expanded, Gauger said.

“There are efficiencies to be made,” agreed Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “We have to be more creative from UNHCR’s point of view. We have to build up capacity.”

Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said Obama should use the bully pulpit to inject more urgency into the issue than he has.

“I think the administration has yet to show real leadership on this issue and really has not laid out the case to the American people on why this is so important,” Nezer said in an interview last week.

For example, Nezer said the Obama administration could make a stronger public case on why providing support to refugees is in the national security interests of the United States. Using domestic resettlement and more foreign aid to help alleviate the massive stresses that have been placed on the social safety nets of the Middle Eastern nations hosting millions of Syrian refugees would reduce the chances of instability spreading from Syria into key regional allies such as Jordan and Turkey, she said.

“The countries that are hosting Syrian refugees in the region are completely stretched,” Nezer said. “They are at the breaking point.”

Streamlining the Process

In the four and a half years of the Syrian civil war, the United States has admitted only 1,900 refugees from the conflict. A leading reason why so few have been admitted is the 18- to 24-month period it typically takes to process an individual applicant.

Gauger said recent improvements made by the Homeland Security Department over the summer have consolidated some security checks for refugee applicants, which still receive more scrutiny than any other category of traveler to the United States.

“I know that DHS [is] looking at a variety of ways of streamlining processing,” said Gauger, a former State Department desk officer for Africa, adding that she expected the wait time to be somewhat shortened next year. “It’s a large ship that takes a long time to turn. The program is just now gearing up.”

Earlier this month, 13 Democratic senators and about 70 House lawmakers signed letters to State and the DHS calling for certain changes to the refugee resettlement program, including allowing refugees who already have relatives legally living in the United States to apply directly to the program rather than having to first be referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nezer said she thinks the processing time could also be shortened if all applying Syrians were automatically classified as refugees rather than having to first go through the time-consuming process of proving they meet the qualifications for that status.

“To spend all of this time to determine if the person was persecuted really seems to me like a waste of time,” she said.

Nezer said it would be up to the DHS to move to that kind of prima facie basis of understanding.

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