(CNSNews.com) – President Obama may let the next president decide how many Syrian refugees to admit during the fast-approaching new fiscal year, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard pointed out that while setting out overall ceilings is a statutory requirement, the U.S. government does not generally lay out refugee admissions targets by nationality.
Obama’s setting of a fiscal year 2016 goal of 10,000 Syrian refugees was therefore “not a normal thing to do,” Richard told a briefing at the State Department, where she heads the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
As for whether a Syria refugee admission target would be announced for FY 2017, she said, “I don’t know if the president will want to do that in the next few months or if a new administration would want to do that.”
Richard was speaking three days before the end of FY 2016. By Friday, the Syria refugee target of 10,000 looks set to be exceeded by around 25 percent. As of Tuesday, 12,430 Syrian refugees have arrived.
(Of those 12,430 Syrian refugees, 12,209 or 98.2 percent are Sunni Muslims and 66 or 0.5 percent are Christians. The rest comprise 102 other Muslims, 20 Shi’a Muslims, 24 Yazidis, eight refugees with religion given as “other,” and one with “no religion.”)
Richard said while national targets – like the one set for Syrians this past year – are not usual, “I think a president at any time can look at the numbers and establish a goal for us.”
The FY 2017 overall refugee admission target, as laid out in a recent report to Congress, is 110,000, an almost 30 percent increase from the FY 2016 target of 85,000.
Although that report does not include a specific target for Syria, it does say that the administration “aims to admit a significantly higher number” of Syrian refugees in FY 2017 than the 10,000 target initially set for this fiscal year.
“We don’t have a target number for number of Syrians for next year,” Richard said. “This administration has been very clear that we want to bring more Syrians, so my own guidance to our staff is that we want to bring even more than we brought this year, without having a target.”
The report to Congress sets out an overall admission ceiling as well as ones for various regions. The proposal includes 40,000 refugees from the Near East and South Asia, making it the biggest single region of origin.
The Near East and South Asia region encompasses mostly Muslim-majority countries, but also several others like Bhutan, whose refugees admitted to the U.S. to date are mostly Hindus.
The other regional targets for FY 2017 are: Africa 35,000; East Asia 12,000; Latin America and the Caribbean 5,000; Europe and Central Asia 4,000.
Richard explained that while ceilings are set for each region, “we have an unallocated amount left over. And so we use the unallocated to make sure that if we have one from any particular part of the world, we can fit them within that subpart of the ceiling.”
Of the overall 110,000 target for FY 2017, 14,000 refugee places are not allocated to a particular region.
Obama’s plan to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country in FY 2016, announced last fall, took a while to get off the ground, and by the time the fiscal year was one-third of the way through, only 841 had been admitted.
Then in February the State Department established a refugee resettlement “surge center” in Amman, Jordan, with officials saying that applicants’ processing times were being reduced from 18-24 months to just three months. (Officials said strict vetting procedures were not being compromised.)
The pace of admissions began to speed up, and by May more than 1,000 applications were finalized. June and July saw well over 2,000 admission each, before August set a new record of 3,189. As of Tuesday, September’s tally of resettled Syrian refugees stands at 1,690.
A new surge?
Asked whether the new fiscal year could see a repeat of the “surge” initiative, Richard said the administration would “look at different options to proceed towards that new [overall] goal of 110,000.”
“One option would be potentially to repeat the surge,” she said. “I think the surge worked last year, but it should not become a routine way of our vetting process. We’d like to be able to do this in our existing routine operations during the course of the year.”
Responding to a question about criticism from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others about security screening for refugee applicants, Richard again defended the process.
“Our vetting is extremely rigorous and careful, and it’s been gone over now for months by a lot of colleagues and analysts,” she said. “And so it’s the most careful way of bringing anyone into the United States of any visitor to the United States. So we have great faith in it to screen out people who don’t belong in the program.”
Richard acknowledged that when administration officials discussed the FY 2017 refugee admission program report with lawmakers earlier this month, they received a “mixed reception,” including “a lot of questions about the vetting process.”
Last week, two Republican House committee chairmen in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson charged that Obama’s refugee admission proposal for next year “ignores warnings from his own national security officials that Syrians cannot be adequately vetted to ensure terrorists are not admitted.”
“Revelations about fraud, security gaps, and lack of oversight have demonstrated that the program is creating national security risks,” wrote House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
Asked about challenges arising from opposition from some Republican governors to having Syrian refugees resettled in their states, Richard pointed out that the program was a federal one.
“We have 180 cities across the United States where we currently resettle refugees and that list is likely to grow in the coming months,” she said. “We have a lot of municipalities stepping forward and expressing an interest in resettling refugees.”
Richard said there was “a great deal of receptivity” for having refugees resettled in cities and towns across the nation.
The administration does aim not to send refugees to places where housing is expensive or jobs scarce, she said, adding that local consultation was therefore essential.