Support grows for more Syrian refugees

A Senate hearing on Tuesday revealed growing bipartisan support for allowing more Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary human-rights panel pressed the Obama administration to relax standards that reject applicants who have supported armed factions, even ones the U.S. government itself supports. Members of both parties also urged passage of provisions of the stalled immigration reform bill that could help Syrians. 

“I don't see a comprehensive immigration bill passing anytime soon, so when it comes to changes in our laws, extensions, if you need something beyond the ability that you have [now], please let us know,”  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told State and Homeland Security officials. “Because I think a lot of us may have different views about immigration but may be willing to accommodate some legal changes that would help expedite this process.”

Those provisions include removing the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers, along with other changes to refugee program.

The hearing comes amid rising criticism that the U.S. isn't doing enough after allowing only 90 Syrians to resettle in the United States over the past three years, out of more than 2 million refugees who have been straining the resources of neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. The administration says it has done its part by offering $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid — more than any other country.

Panel chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told the panelists that the U.S. “also should accept more vulnerable Syrian refugees who have no way of getting to the United States.”

“One issue that needs to be addressed is the overly broad prohibition in our immigration law that excludes any refugee who has provided any kind of support to any armed rebel group, even a group supported by the United States,” he said. “This would prevent a Syrian who gave a cigarette or a sandwich to a Free Syrian Army solider from receiving refugee status, despite the fact that the United States is providing assistance to the FSA.”

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Tea Party Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), however, himself the son of refugees from Cuba, raised concerns about al Qaeda and other militants infiltrating the refugee ranks. The State Department's top official on refugee issues acknowledged it was an issue.

“It's not large numbers,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard. “The thing that we know though is that it doesn't take a lot of evil-doers to cause a lot of havoc. So it's not a wide problem, but it is a real problem.”

Refugee advocates latched onto the hearing to press lawmakers and the administration to allow many more refugees. Richard testified that the administration expects to accept referrals for “several thousand” Syrian refugees this year.

The International Rescue Committee, which provides humanitarian assistance around the world and in the U.S., called for emergency measures to allow the resettlement of 12,000 Syrian refugees in 2014 and 15,000 in 2015. The nonprofit Human Rights First also called on Congress and the administration make available at least 15,000 spaces for Syrian refugees each year.

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