DHS chief: US on track to bring in 10K Syrian refugees this year

DHS chief: US on track to bring in 10K Syrian refugees this year
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The Obama administration is on track to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States before October, the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Wednesday. 

Jeh Johnson said "over 7,000" Syrian refugees have already arrived in the country and "there are several thousand who have been approved and are just awaiting the physical resettlement." 

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"So I believe we will make the commitment to resettle 10,000 refugees this fiscal year," Johnson told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington. 

That's "a significantly larger number than last year," Johnson noted, putting the 2015 figure at "about 1,600."

The debate over President Obama's refugee resettlement program has raged nationwide amid an international crisis that's seen millions of Syrians flee their country since a civil war began there in 2011. 

Most have settled in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, but many thousands more have streamed through Turkey and across the Mediterranean into Europe, leaving European leaders scrambling for ways to manage the deluge.

From the left, Obama has been criticized for accepting too few refugees; from the right, he's been lambasted for expanding the program this year amid heightened concerns about terrorism. 

Some Republican state legislators have pushed new laws attempting to bar any refugees from entering their states — efforts that have largely been rejected by the courts.

Hoping to defuse the security concerns, Johnson emphasized Wednesday that the program's expansion has not come by cutting corners or rushing the process, but by increasing resources and personnel to handle the greater number of screenings –– an expanded capability he said he "personally inspected" during a visit to Turkey in March.

"The process is still a very thorough, time-consuming process for each refugee applicant. On average, it has been 18 to 24 months, and we have not shortcut the process," Johnson said. "In fact, we have added security checks to the process for refugees from certain countries, which I can't really get into publicly." 

He said the refugees are resettled only in communities willing and able to accept them.  

"We don't just dump them someplace in this country," Johnson said. "They are resettled in communities that are able to absorb refugees, and want to take in refugees. 

"We have traditionally and historically accepted refugees into this country and we should continue to do so," he added. "It's a part of who we are as a nation." 

The debate over Obama's resettlement program intensified after last November's terrorist attack in Paris, where at least one attacker had entered Europe as a refugee. The tragedy led Republicans on Capitol Hill to push legislation that would have effectively halted the program –– a bill that passed the House but went no further in the face of a White House veto threat. 

As a fallback measure, bipartisan leaders pushed legislation eliminating visa-waiver privileges for any foreigners who have visited Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan over the past five years. It passed into law in December as part of Congress's year-end spending package.

The refugee debate has also extended to the presidential trail, most notably in Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE's call, after the November Paris attacks, to bar all Muslims from entering the country.

Johnson on Wednesday declined to weigh in on the presidential race. But he stressed the importance of outreach and cooperation with Muslim communities living in the U.S., and warned that attacking those communities would only make the country less safe. 

"I think it's critical to our homeland security mission that we build bridges to American Muslim communities, that we encourage them to participate in our homeland security efforts," he said.  

"Overheated rhetoric [and] vilification of American Muslims is counter to those efforts."