One of the leading advocates for admitting more Syrian refugees to the United States says the Obama administration could be doing more — and does not need to wait for Congress.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News Monday, said Congress doesn't need to act for the United States to process more refugees and said the focus should instead be on the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
"I think that the main thing right now is the State Department and the DHS upping their game," the Minnesota senator said.
"I feel like we have some obligation here to join the rest of the world," Klobuchar said. "Europe should clearly take the lead because they are close in proximity, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take part, and doesn't mean some countries in the mideast like Saudi Arabia shouldn't take some refugees as well."
In recent days and weeks, some Europeans countries have significantly increased the number of Syrian refugees that they will admit.
In May of this year, 14 senators, led by Klobuchar and fellow Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, wrote a letter to President Obama calling on the administration to significantly increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed to resettle in the United States to 65,000.
The letter was largely overlooked at the time, but 65,000 has since been picked up as a benchmark for the politicians pressuring the United States to take in more refugees after the image of a dead boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey brought renewed attention to the issue, and as Europe is flooded with refugees.
The number would be a drastic increase from the current number of refugees the U.S. resettles annually. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the U.S. has received 17,000 referrals for resettlement, but has only processed 1,500 refugees. The State Department says it expects to resettle 300 more by the end of the fiscal year in October, and announced in late August it intends to resettle a total of 5,000 to 8,000 refugees in 2016. Critics say that number still doesn't fully address the magnitude of the crisis.
One of the main challenges facing the State Department and DHS is the time and effort it takes to process Syrian refugees for resettlement. In July, the State Department, in response to the senators' letter, said due to the complex nature of Syrian cases, it was taking longer than usual for DHS to handle resettlement requests and that the administration planned to increase the size of the DHS teams.
According to the State Department, Syrian refugees are subjected to additional security screening (some of the details of which are classified) out of concerns that terrorist groups could use the asylum process to gain entry into the United States. The process takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months.
The threat to national security is also the reason why some lawmakers are urging caution in increasing the number of refugees resettled in America. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul wrote a letter to the president in June arguing that the screening process for refugees suffered from "vulnerabilities."
"Terrorists have exploited the refugee process to sneak into our country in the past, and officials have warned my Committee that we lack the on-the-ground intelligence in Syria needed to confidently vet individuals for resettlement," McCaul said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Before taking on any new refugee admissions, the president must provide assurances to Congress and the American people that our security screening is up to the task."
Klobuchar told BuzzFeed News that the United States still needs to have limits and a thorough vetting process, but said the country had risen to the occasion before, when it resettled thousands of Hmong refugees from Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s and 90s. Today, more than 60,000 Hmong live in Minnesota, the largest population in the country.
"One of the things that we've learned in our state, is one, they are vetted, and two they are legal, so they can work," Klobuchar said.
"It shows you in the past, when there has been a major conflict or humanitarian crisis, we have risen to the occasion and taken in refugees."