Flashpoints

As Syria conflict grows more complicated, U.S. admits a surge of refugees

The U.S. has dramatically stepped up efforts to accept refugees displaced by violence in Syria, bringing in more than 2,300 in June, according to new data released by the State Department.

That's more than six times the monthly average since late last summer, when President Obama pledged to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees during fiscal 2016, which ends Sept. 30. To date, the U.S. has resettled about 5,200.

It remains politically divisive, fueled on one side by a sense of moral obligation and, on the other, by fears that the White House is merely making it easier for potential terrorists enter the country.

Meanwhile, Obama has ordered an additional 250 American special operations troops to Syria, where they're tasked with advising local militias fighting the Islamic State group. Increasingly, those rebels have come under attack by Russian and Syrian forces.

The June immigration numbers were announced just days after news surfaced that Obama is pursuing a military pact with Russia, one that seeks greater protection for U.S.-backed Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. As reported by the Washington Post, U.S. forces would, in exchange, help the Russians target an al Qaida offshoot — Jabhat al-Nusra — battling Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

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Coupled with the brutality exhibited by ISIS, violence and instability wrought by Syria's five-year-old civil war are driving a migrant crisis that has taxed Syria's neighbors and several European nations especially hard. More than 4.8 million people have left Syria since 2011, and another 8.7 million remain displaced inside the country, according to the UN.

Efforts to ramp up resettlement in the U.S. has been months in the making, according to a State Department official. In February, the departments of State and Homeland Security began posting additional staff to Jordan, and the agencies have added personnel to refugee support centers in Turkey.

That push comes after months of relatively low admissions, which cast doubt on whether the U.S. would be able to meet Obama's objective.

"Earlier in the spring, there was a lot of skepticism that we could meet the 10,000 goal, because the numbers were so low," said Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "But they've essentially concentrated and streamlined the process for this particular group, and it's looking likely that they'll meet their goal."

The effort has been met by protests from many Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates, including presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe.

"They can allocate more staff members, but no process is flawless and you have to call it into question," said Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. "It's worrisome that they've apparently ramped up efforts so quickly."

The chief concern for many critics is that ISIS and other terrorist groups could use the program as a way to slip into the U.S., a narrative fueled by recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

But refugees on track to be resettled in the U.S. typically undergo a rigorous process of background checks, security screenings and in-person interviews before arriving in this country, according to the State Department. And Syrian refugees undergo even more intense scrutiny than refugees from other parts of the world.

"The increased processing capacity that enabled us to meet these goals does not represent a curtailment, in any way, of our comprehensive and robust security screening," the State Department official said in an email Tuesday.  "By increasing the number of [Homeland Security] officers available to interview applicants, we were able to conduct equally exhaustive rigorous security screening reviews for more applicants, resulting in more refugees being approved for travel."

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