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.