Lawmakers Want Bigger Refugee Intake From Syria

Lawmakers who represent communities with the largest populations of Syrians told BuzzFeed News that current goals to resettle refugees were insufficient. The White House on Thursday set a new target of resettling 10,000 Syrians, up from 1,500.

Amid mounting pressure, the White House announced Thursday that President Obama directed his administration to prepare to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next fiscal year. Refugee advocates welcomed the announcement, but also said it still falls well below what they, and even members of the president’s own party, believe is necessary.

“It’s a step forward, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a worldwide crisis and we have to do our part.”

In May, 14 senators wrote to the president calling for a “dramatic increase” in the intake of Syrian refugees. In recent days, Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, has began asking colleagues to sign a letter to the president calling for 65,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the U.S. by the end of 2016.

By Friday, Cicilline had garnered 72 signatures from fellow members of the House of Representatives, according to a statement sent to BuzzFeed News.

Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Cicilline said he was ashamed that the U.S. had only resettled 1,500 Syrians since the start of the civil war. “We’re doing a lot, but 1,500 is an embarrassingly small number,” he said. “We can do more, and we should do more, and we must do more.”

Using Census data, BuzzFeed News compiled a list of the zip codes with the largest estimated Syrian-born communities and reached out to the 15 U.S. Representatives elected in these districts. At least 11 representatives, both Democrat and Republican, who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they supported a strong increase in the intake of refugees from Syria, but many were reluctant to offer precise figures.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat whose district covers Dearborn, told BuzzFeed News the humanitarian crisis deeply affected her constituents, “many of whom have family members trapped in the country.”

Dingell, who said she'd signed Cicilline's letter and had been in contact with State Department and Homeland Security officials on the refugee issue, said more needs to be done to “help those who are suffering in Syria find safety.”

“The tragic photo of a young Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey captured and made real for many people a crisis that has been building for years,” she said.

Rep. Chu, who in part represents the Pasadena area, also said she had been horrified by the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned along with his brother and mother while attempting to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

Chu, who signed Cicilline’s letter, said she had seen an uptick in the number of Syrian constituents approaching her office for help in recent weeks. “They’re coming in more frequently and they’re very worried about the status of their loved ones,” Chu said.

Census information showed Syrians in the U.S. were scattered across the country, but lived predominately in parts of Los Angeles, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Chicago.

Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky represents parts of central Chicago and also signed Cicilline’s letter. She told BuzzFeed News her “immigrant and refugee-rich” district of 715,000 people welcomed people from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Burundi for years.

Citing countries like Lebanon, whose population has swelled by 25% after accepting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, Schakowsky said the U.S. could stand to increase its current overall refugee intake of 70,000 by more than just a few thousand.

“What seems to be missing right now is the will to take in more refugees,” she said.

“The principles of protecting refugees is a core tenet of our country’s identity,” she said. “That’s our common ethic, that we recognize our international obligation that people aren’t just left to fend for themselves and not return to face persecution.”

Many lawmakers said they supported the security vetting that forms part of the refugee application process, but also hoped that requests could be dealt with more quickly and efficiently.

Republican Rep. Daniel Donovan, whose district in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn has a prominent Syrian community, told BuzzFeed News it was important to expedite the application process – which takes at least 18 months – in order to adequately accommodate refugees.

“The administration must take steps to reunite families torn apart by this humanitarian crisis, including a more expeditious approval process for those seeking asylum,” he said.

Anisa Abeytia, the California director for the Syrian American Council (SAC), an organization that supports rebels fighting against the Assad government, told BuzzFeed News her group understood the U.S. alone can't solve the refugee crisis.

“There’s the image that we’re the hero, that we’re going to save the day,” she said. “But at the same time it requires a partnership with the EU.”

Germany has said it will take at least 500,000 refuges over the next year, while France and the U.K. will take 24,000 and 20,000 respectively over two years.

During a background briefing with reporters Tuesday, a senior State Department official said the agency had established a working group to handle requests for assistance from European nations.

The official did recognize the difference between the U.S. and the European Union's situations. “What’s happening in Europe is that people are walking out and walking to Europe and getting there on their own energies and showing up,” the official said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat who in part represents Granada Hills, said that with more than 13 million refugees globally, the crisis was much bigger and more complex than the present European emergency.

Sherman also criticized European nations for being “nowhere to be found” last year when of tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador arrived in the U.S. after fleeing deadly violence. Many of the refugees were women and unaccompanied minors.

“We certainly need to admit our fair share of refugees, but keep in mind there was a similar exodus in the last 12 months from Central America, and I didn’t get a letter from Angela Merkel saying, ‘We want to help deal with this Western Hemisphere crisis,’” he said.

Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who in part represents the Whitehall area, also referred to the Central American asylum seekers when stating that the current Syrian refugee crisis required stronger European leadership.

“We didn’t ask Europe to help resettle these children. We took that responsibility on ourselves,” he said. “I’m not asking them to do all this by themselves but they must lead.”

Dent said special consideration should be given to Christians being persecuted, who he said made up most of the Syrians in his district.

Abeytia, of the SAC, though, said it was crucial the U.S. accept many more Syrians, blaming the refugee crisis in part on a “failure of leadership” shown by Washington.

“I knew this was coming two years ago,” she said of the flood of refugees in Europe. “The U.S. administration has failed to take leadership over and over again on things such as the use of chemical weapons, the killing of civilians, rape, war crimes.

“Eventually these people were going to have no choice but to leave,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Singer-Vine.