The Buzz

America Must Take In More Syrian Refugees

When we spoke over coffee this summer in Amman, Nizar told me that he was imprisoned by the Assad regime for raising money to assist Syrians whose homes were destroyed in the fighting, and was brutally tortured during his half-year prison stay. He said that his foremost priority was obtaining political asylum in the West for himself and his family. Although he would occasionally visit Damascus from Jordan, he said that he can never go back for good because of the horrific memories that continue to haunt him.

Nizar expressed how profoundly painful it is for him to see Westerners and others from “normal countries”, as he put it, come to the region and go as they please: “How can coming here be a vacation?” he asked rhetorically. He said that, should he obtain political asylum, he would leave the region and never return. Fortunately for Nizar, he and his family have since been granted asylum in the EU. Countless others are unlikely to encounter the same good luck.

In Congress, support for resettling Syrians in the US is hardly robust. Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, which has pushed for domestic resettlement of Iraqi refugees, views obtaining Congressional support for resettlement of Syrians as a tough sell. Getting Congress’s buy-in would require strong advocacy and a mass of sympathetic lawmakers, yet Johnson doesn’t “see either of those necessary ingredients."

However, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), has pushed hard for resettlement of Syrians in the US. He has called for the granting of "humanitarian parole authority" to nearly six thousand Syrian nationals with approved immigrant visa petitions and families already living in America. In March, he and over seventy other members of Congress sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano advocating refugee assistance to Syrians attempting to reunite with family members in the US.

On Friday October 25, 2013, Brian de Vallance, Homeland Security's Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, replied to the letter, writing that the U.S. government has entered "discussions" with UNHCR and "other governments on expanded resettlement of particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees." Rep. Schiff reacted by noting that such "discussions without action" merely show a "lack of decision." "They evidently don't want to say yes and they don't want to say no," he said.

When I asked Rep. Schiff whether he believes allowing more Syrians to settle in the U.S. has any positive implications for U.S. national interests, he said that “the request that I made would apply to Syrians with family members in the United States, so it has a very direct impact on the United States interest in reuniting families. But it also allows the United States to show it has taken a very personal interest in the safety and well-being of the refugees and gives us ‘skin in the game’ in a way quite distinct from providing weapons.” He added that he hopes “to win the support of the White House—a likely prerequisite to success on this issue.”

The time to act is now. In normal circumstances, the process of vetting refugees for admission to the United States can take a year or longer to complete. Heightened security concerns vis-a-vis Syrian refugees will likely lengthen the vetting period. However, as Morton Abramowitz has noted, Washington can and should expedite processing, as it has done with other refugee groups. It is past time for the Obama administration to move on this issue.