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U.S. Struggles With Goal of Admitting 10,000 Syrians

31 May

WASHINGTON — President Obama invited a Syrian refugee to this year’s State of the Union address, and he has spoken passionately about embracing refugees as a core American value.

But nearly eight months into an effort to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, Mr. Obama’s administration has admitted just over 2,500. And as his administration prepares for a new round of deportations of Central Americans, including many women and children pleading for humanitarian protection, the president is facing intense criticism from allies in Congress and advocacy groups about his administration’s treatment of migrants.

They say Mr. Obama’s lofty message about the need to welcome those who come to the United States seeking protection has not been matched by action. And they warn that the president, who will host a summit meeting on refugees in September during the United Nations General Assembly session, risks undercutting his influence on the issue at a time when American leadership is needed to counteract a backlash against refugees.

“Given that we’ve resettled so few refugees and we’re employing a deterrence strategy to refugees on our Southern border, I wouldn’t think we’d be giving advice to any other nations about doing better,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

“The world notices when we talk a good game but then we don’t follow through in our own backyard,” Mr. Appleby said.

The delay is frustrating for Mr. Obama, who has made a point of speaking out against anti-immigrant sentiment both in the United States and abroad, arguing that Republicans, particularly the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, are playing on misplaced fears about terrorism.

“We’ve got to push back against anti-immigrant sentiment in all of its forms, especially by those who are trying to stoke it just to seek political gain,” Mr. Obama told a gathering this month of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in Washington.

At the White House, he has instructed his top advisers that they must not fall short of meeting his goal to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States by the fall. But an onerous and complex web of security checks and vetting procedures, shared among several government agencies, has made the target difficult to reach.

At the same time, White House officials concede that the challenging election-year politics surrounding the issue — 47 House Democrats joined Republicans in November in voting for legislation to further tighten the screening process — make it impossible to quickly take in substantially more Syrians by removing any of the tough vetting procedures.

Mr. Obama “has been very clear that he expects us to find a way to make this happen consistent with our security standards,” Amy Pope, a deputy homeland security adviser, said of reaching the target of 10,000 refugees. “The dynamics within Congress have certainly made it difficult to lean far forward in terms of refugee processing, but our obligation is to leave the refugee process in better shape than we found it.”

The Central American migrants pouring across the Southern border pose a different but no less challenging problem. Individuals who enter the United States illegally do not necessarily qualify as refugees, although a growing proportion of Central Americans are arriving with claims of asylum, asserting that they are seeking refuge from violence and mortal threats in their home countries.

While administration officials say they are working to address the root causes of the migration and to set up new programs to extend humanitarian protection to those who need it, their primary response has been to try to deter Central Americans from making the dangerous journey to the United States. One method has been to deport those whose asylum claims have been rejected.

“We have to control the border, that’s our job, and we have to honor our humanitarian obligation,” Cecilia Muñoz, the director of Mr. Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, said in an interview. “The situation in Central America, as terrible as it is, the legal standard may not be fully up to addressing why people are leaving.”

Humanitarian groups have denounced the administration’s approach, arguing that the president must recognize the Central American migrants as refugees.

“The administration’s entire foreign policy has been built upon enforcement, not protection,” said Anna Greene, the director of policy and advocacy, United States programs, for the International Rescue Committee. “If this situation was playing out far from our borders, our government would be funding a humanitarian response and demanding that other countries abide by their international obligations.”

The criticism comes as some of Mr. Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill are arguing that he has not done enough to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. Twenty-seven Democrats led by Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who was Mr. Obama’s partner in the Senate and maintains close ties with the president, told him in a letter this month that the administration “can and should do much more” to accept Syrian refugees.

“The Syrian situation is the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time,” Mr. Durbin said in an interview, “and if we do not respond in a positive and proactive way, we’re going to have future generations asking, ‘Where were you?’”

The administration has scrambled to pick up the pace of resettling Syrian refugees, officials say. The Departments of State and Homeland Security sent a surge of personnel to Jordan this year to interview about 12,000 refugee applicants referred by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and officials have begun processing cases in Beirut, Lebanon, and Erbil, Iraq. But the numbers remain stubbornly low.

Germany has not said how many refugees it might accept. In 2015, it registered 447,336 new applicants for asylum, about 25 percent of them Syrians.

A program begun by the United States in 2014 to allow Central American children with a relative in the country to qualify as refugees has approved only 300, an administration official said. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in January that he would create another initiative to admit as many as 9,000 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras after processing outside the United States, but the program has not begun.

Administration officials argue that Mr. Obama is doing more than most — the United States admits more refugees over all than any other country and is the largest contributor to humanitarian relief.

“When you step back and look at the longer-term picture in terms of the United States’ record on the U.N. refugee program,” Josh Earnest, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, said this month, “it’s hard for other countries to criticize.”