Last September, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would welcome 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians, in 2016. But after six months of resettling, the State Department is not even close to their goals. Only a third of its refugee target has been met. Even worse, a dismal 13 percent of the Syrian refugee goal has been achieved.
The federal government has taken steps to ramp up resettlement in recent weeks, but the tremendous effort it will take to reach both goals remains lofty. In fact, we are currently on pace to resettle fewer refugees than last year despite the 2016 goal being 15,000 more.
As of last week—six months into fiscal year 2016— 29,055 refugees have arrived in America. Of those, only 1,285 are Syrian. This means that the U.S. must resettle 55,945 refugees in the next six months to reach its stated goal. The United States currently resettles roughly 4,800 refugees each month, but would need to almost double that rate—to 9,300—if it aims to meet the goal by October.
Resettlement admissions usually pick up in the second half of the year but only slightly. In the last three years where the State Department reached its target, it admitted a bit more than half of the refugees—53 percent—in the latter portion of the year. This year, the State Department will need to fill fully two-thirds of the goal in the second half to make it.
The slow flow has a few explanations. To begin with, throughout FY 2015, the Obama administration only planned for 75,000 admissions in FY 2016. Then, in September, just days before the start of FY 2016, Secretary Kerry announced the higher refugee number. This gave the agencies little time to prepare for a higher intake. It also resulted in a reduction in funding per refugee admitted this year.
Other issues are more structural. Each of the security clearances, for example, have a limited validity period, typically 15 months. The medical clearance is only valid for 3 to 6 months. The average processing time for a refugee is 18 to 24 months, so if the refugees are not cleared for admission before these checks expire, then they are forced to rerun the clearance process.
Fortunately, the Obama administration is attempting to address the problems. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent 200 to 300 staffers to Jordan to interview Syrian candidates for resettlement early this year through April. And the Department of Homeland Security also restarted interviews in Lebanon starting in February.
These personnel additions will both dramatically increase capacity to conduct interviews for Syrians already in the pipeline and introduce new Syrians into said pipeline from UNHCR referrals. The problem is whether enough Syrians, about 8,700, can go from interview, to processing, to their flight to the U.S. within the short time frame.
Perhaps with this in mind, the State Department also listed Syrians as eligible for Priority 2 refugee processing in February. This allows refugees who have family in the United States and have petitioned for a green card to apply for refugee status in the U.S. directly, without waiting for a United Nations referral. This change will expedite the process and make it easier for the State Department to identify eligible applicants.
These changes will likely enable the United States to expedite the applications for certain Syrian refugees. But even if they reach the 10,000 goal for Syrians, the overall 85,000 number is still in jeopardy.
The United States needs to consider structural reforms to the refugee process, such as increasing interview staff and permitting private sector funding. Both would allow for a quicker response to refugee crises in the future and would prevent a repeat of this year’s sluggish performance.