Responding to the worldwide refugee crisis—which the United Nations has called “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”—President Obama vowed last September that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees and 85,000 refugees total over the following 12 months. With much fanfare, the State Department hit its Syrian refugee quota this week. But with just one month left, it is still 15,000 short of its overall target, and if it continues at its current pace, it will come up 3,000 short.
But here are seven reasons why hitting the target would be a major accomplishment.
1) A slow start: The biggest reason that the State Department is cutting it close is that it suffered one of its slowest starts in recent years. In the prior three fiscal years (FYs), the refugee target was 70,000, and yet even with a higher goal this year, the United States had accepted fewer refugees at the midpoint of this year than at the same time in any of those years (the purple bolded line in the chart below). While the United States has usually ramped up slightly during the second half of prior years, it has taken an historic effort to catch up this year.
Figure: Monthly Refugee Admissions to the United States (FY 2013-FY 2016)
Source: State Department
2) Most refugees in a month ever: If the United States is to reach its goal this year, it will need to accept nearly 15,000 refugees in September. This is more than any month that the State Department has made available since 2001 and possibly the most ever. Although month-by-month statistics are unavailable for the record year of FY 1992 when the United States admitted 132,000 refugees, the average monthly intake was only 11,000, making it possible that this September will be the most ambitious month in history.
3) Late planning: A major reason for the slow start is that the agencies had planned throughout FY 2015 to accept only 75,000 in FY 2016. It was not until two weeks before the start of the year that Secretary of State John Kerry changed course and decided to increase the number by 10,000. The agencies scrambled to adjust, but it took time to ramp up. “As an operational person and for planning purposes, I had anticipated an increase from 70,000 to 75,000,” Barbara Strack, Refugee Affairs Division Chief of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told Congress on October 1st last year. In order to meet the goal, the agency needed to “surge” hundreds of refugee officers into Jordan from February to April to conduct enough interviews to meet the goal.
4) No new money: The agencies are already on pace to admit 12,000 more refugees this year than last year, despite receiving no new funding to do so. The agencies actually did not ask for new money. The State Department’s representative Larry Bartlett told Congress in October that the department was “looking for efficiencies across its programs.” Ms. Strack told Congress that USCIS believed that there was “sufficient funding… to cover the 85,000 anticipated admissions in FY ‘16 by reprioritizing between programs.” But again, reprioritizations and efficiencies take time, and the lack of new money likely delayed their ability to ramp up, making the accomplishment all the more impressive.
5) Humanitarian emergencies everywhere: On top of these 85,000 refugees, the Office of Refugee Resettlement will also have to deal with the most Cuban arrivals since 1980, the most asylum-seekers at the border claiming a credible fear of persecution in their home countries ever, and a massive influx of unaccompanied immigrant children. The administration warned Congress as early as December that it may fall short of the money needed to handle the number of unaccompanied children, and that has in the past resulted in money being taken from the refugee program.
6) The most difficult cases: Assuming that it takes in as many as it did last month, the United States is on pace to accept roughly 13,000 Syrian refugees this year, which is more than 5 times the amount it admitted last year. These cases require the highest level of security review. USCIS’s Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate conducts enhanced reviews of Syrian refugee cases that require more manpower than the typical refugee case. They employ surveillance to check any factually verifiable claim that the refugee makes during the process. This leads to higher rejection rates, which also makes these cases much more difficult to process.
7) Hostile political climate: Maybe this goes without saying, but it has taken political determination to effectuate a 21 percent increase in the number of refugees in the face of congressional opposition and, at times, even public opposition. In 1980, Congress entrusted the president with the responsibility, after hearings with Congress, to raise the refugee goal precisely in order to insulate the decision-making from such political whims. The fact that the president has exercised the authority deserves credit.
This achievement, however, should be seen in context: 85,000 refugees is 0.13 percent of the total number of forcibly displaced persons around the world this year who have fled their homes to escape violence and persecution. The president’s current goal for FY 2017 is 100,000, which is still lower than the share of refugees worldwide that the country has taken historically. I have argued that this number could be increased through exempting refugees from the normal immigration quotas and admitting refugees with private sponsors, neither of which would require more money from Congress.