The Obama administration said Thursday it is willing to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year as European countries continue to grapple with the surge of thousands of people from war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa.
The decision represents a significant increase compared to the 1,500 Syrian refugees expected in the U.S. by the end of this fiscal year, on Sept. 30th.
But it’s still far less than many Democrats have been calling on the administration to admit into the U.S.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has cited a Vietnam-era program that let in 14,000 refugees each month. And more than three months ago, 14 Democratic Senators sent a letter to President Obama asking the number be increased to 65,000 in the coming year.
The U.S. estimates it has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict four years ago, compared to the one million refugees who came to the U.S. following the fall of Saigon. And some 50,000 were allowed entry into the U.S. during the Iraq war under a special expedited program.
There’s no plan right now for the kind of expedited process that allowed 50,000 refugees from the Iraq war to come to the U.S., White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Thursday.
The war in Syria is now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.
“Given the scale of the population displaced by violence in Syria, it’s difficult to imagine a practical solution that includes bringing all those people to the U.S.,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Thursday.
“I don’t anticipate at this point that we would have a significant problem in trying to meet the ambitious goal that the president has laid out for admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees next year,” he added.
Since the crisis escalated in Europe, the administration has been working to figure out how many refugees the U.S. can take in.
The White House has repeatedly said the U.S. has provided significantly more financial help than any other country in the world — $4 billion since the start of the current crisis.
“We are looking at the number that we can specifically manage with respect to the crisis in Syria and Europe. That’s being vetted fully right now,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday.
Officials tell NBC News that a full plan is expected to be announced “in the coming days”.
However, there are a number of critical questions to be answered, including how increasing the number of Syrian refugees might impact that chances of refugees from other countries.
The heartbreaking scenes of refugees fleeing Syria, notably 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey after drowning along with his 5-year-old brother and mother as they tried to make their way to Greece, has shone a harsh spotlight on a problem that goes far beyond Syria.
U.N. statistics show the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering more than a 59 million people. Most alarmingly, say U.N. officials, over half the world’s refugees are children, like Aylan.
The question of what the U.S. role should be in addressing the growing humanitarian crisis has made for some harsh political debate. On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took to the chamber floor and stood next to a photo of Aylan to criticize the U.S response.
“This image has haunted the world,” McCain said. “But what should haunt us even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes is the thought that the United States will continue to do nothing meaningful about it.”
A senior White House official told NBC News that “the reality is the U.S. can’t come close to solving the problem.”
“To scale up to a degree that some members of Congress may have in mind would have some significant fiscal consequences,” Earnest said on Thursday, adding that the background check process is work intensive and requires a lot of trained manpower.
Some lawmakers worry that resettling such a large number of refugees could mean exposing the U.S. to heightened security risks.
A number of other Republicans including Rep. Peter King of New York and House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mike McCaul of Texas have called the resettlement a “serious mistake” because of the security risks it poses.
Director of Intelligence James Clapper spoke about concerns about ISIS infiltrating refugees and the threat to the U.S. at a summit Wednesday on the state of intelligence and national security.
Right now, getting through the resettlement process can take 3 years — in part because of security concerns — a senior White House official told NBC News “so any suggestion the administration can just “fix this” is unrealistic.”
Earnest has said the Obama administration is looking at a “range of approaches” for helping nations cope with the influx of refugees.
The State Department is heading up a working group to examine the issue and the White House acknowledges there’s an “urgent” need.
“At every step of the way, the president will put safety (of the U.S.) at the top of the list,” Earnest said, adding the president “will not sign off on process that cuts corners.”