State seeks to pick up pace on bringing Syrian refugees to US

State seeks to pick up pace on bringing Syrian refugees to US
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The State Department is hoping to bring an average of nearly 1,500 Syrian refugees to the United States per month in order to meet President Obama's target of settling 10,000 refugees in the country by September.

About 1,300 refugees have already been placed in the United States since Obama first made the commitment in September. 

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That's far fewer than those taken in by European countries such as Germany, who has dealt with an unprecedented wave of migrants fleeing Syria's civil war, as well as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

Yet the settlement has provoked a significant backlash, mostly from Republicans, who argue it puts the U.S. at risk from terrorism.

“It's clear that ISIS wants to, has planned on attempting to infiltrate refugee populations. This is a problem. If one person gets through who is planning a terrorist attack in our country, that's a problem,” House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE, who recently returned from a trip to the region, said Thursday.

“The administration — whether it's Homeland Security or the FBI, cannot tell us that they can adequately screen people. There isn't really a Syria to talk to on that end of the equation to vet people, so it is a problem,” Ryan told reporters.

The State Department says it has fallen behind schedule in meting Obama’s goal partly due to a lack of personnel available to interview refugees. 

It is now doing a “surge operation” in Amman, Jordan, that is designed to process the rest of the Syrian refugees in as little as three months and leave them enough time to get to the U.S. before September. 

The State Department has devoted more staff in Amman to focus on processing Syrian refugees, as well as hired new employees, which the department says it needed anyway. 

“By putting more officers in one place we can conduct more interviews. Partly we have a backlog because we don’t have enough officers to interview people,” Larry Bartlett, the State Department's director of the Office of Refugee Admissions, told The Hill in a recent interview. 

“So part of it is a little bit of shifting. We’ve also done some new hiring, and it was hiring that was timely. Those were people we needed anyway but they came onboard in time for this surge operation,” said Bartlett. He did not say how many staff were added in Amman. 

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has prioritized sending more refugees to the U.S. than other countries, he said.

So far, about 9,500 Syrians have been interviewed in Amman since February 1, and 12,000 interviews should be completed by April 28, according to a State Department spokesperson. 

Republican critics argue that speeding up the process to as little as three months will make it easier for terrorists to slip through. 

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), who co-authored a bill to pause and bolster the refugee screening process, called State’s surge operation “unsecure” and said Obama should shut it down immediately. 

“This will inevitably put our nation and our citizens at risk for future terrorist attacks,” he said in a recent statement. 

Zinke pointed to the Paris terrorist attacks in November, in which one of the attackers used a fake Syrian passport to pose as a refugee, possibly because his real identity was on a watch list. 

He also accused administration officials of using “bait and switch tactics” to ease public concern and reassure that screening refugees takes at least a year. 

Indeed, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters after the administration announced the 10,000 figure that the screening process would take “12 to 18 months.” 

“That process typically takes 12 to 18 months. And the reason for that process is that the safety and security of the U.S. homeland comes first,” he said on Sept. 10.

The State Department insists it is not cutting corners on security with its new program.

“The security screening in of itself doesn’t take 18 to 24 months,” Bartlett said. “The 18 to 24 month timeframe is what it would normally take us to process a case. And in this instance we’ve compressed the non-security portions of the case work so that it can be shorter.

“The security portions have not been compressed in terms of what they’re looking at, and the standards that they’re using to either approve or disapprove someone,” he added. 

Bartlett said that in order to meet the 10,000 goal, Syrian refugees will also continue to be accepted from other nations as well as Jordan, to include Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. He said the State Department has just started to re-interview refugees in Lebanon. 

State Department officials have also said they are hoping to bring in even more than 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, since there is currently a ceiling of 85,000 refugees to the U.S., and it does not limit them by nationality. 

However, the plan to bring in 8,700 more refugees in the next several months will face stiff opposition, especially if it gains attention in the presidential race.

GOP presidential frontrunner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE has called for a temporary ban on Muslim migrants and fellow candidate Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (R-Texas) has called for imposing a religious test on refugees. 

But supporters of the program say the U.S. is doing the right thing. More than 4.7 million Syrians have registered with UNHCR. 

“What the people of the United States should understand is that our intention is to help the most vulnerable people and to do it in a way that respects the security of our nation,” Bartlett said. “This operation is consistent with that goal.”