What more can the US do to help Syrians displaced by their country’s civil war?
The US sits some 10,745km from Syria, far from the refugee crisis now playing out in Europe.
Obama administration officials say they are horrified by what they see, but insist they cannot be the ones to swoop in and make the situation better.
That said, the US has been involved in the humanitarian response from the early days of Syria’s civil war.
Temporary Protected Status
On March 29, 2012, about a year into the Syrian civil war, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that Syrians living in the US could apply for Temporary Protected Status (also called TPS).
It was an acknowledgement that it was too dangerous inside Syria for anyone in the US to try to go home.
Syrians living in the US since March 29, 2012, could apply for permission to live and work in the US until September 30, 2013.
With no end to the war in sight, the US extended that residency period several times.
The new deadline is September 30, 2016. (It is expected that at some point – ideally, when the civil war ends – the US will terminate the TPS programme for Syrians, and they will return to their homeland.)
All those who apply for TPS must undergo what the US calls a “thorough security check” before getting the residency and work permits.
Syrians who get TPS have to stay in the US; if they want to travel internationally, they have to get the US government’s permission first or risk losing their TPS privileges.
As of January 2015, Department of Homeland Security said, an estimated 5,000 Syrian persons are living in the US as part of the TPS programme.
It estimated that another 5,000 Syrian citizens were eligible to apply for TPS through July 5, 2015.
It is not clear yet whether all who were eligible applied. No new application dates are currently scheduled.
The US government says that since 1975, its US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has admitted more than three million people from around the world.
Right now, in 2015, the number of Syrians displaced both within and outside their country is estimated between nine and 12 million.
Clearly, the US is not going to admit more persons from one country’s civil war than it has from all conflicts in the past 40 years.
So what are the reasons for the low refugee admission numbers, and can the US – should the US – try to increase them?
First, a bit of background.
Refugees who want to move to the US or to any other country have to go through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR makes referrals, and the US government then interviews candidates for resettlement. (The vast majority of those who apply will not be accepted – because there are many more applicants than spots available. More on that in a moment.)
Between 2011 and 2014, 201 Syrian refugees were resettled in the US.
So far in 2015, 651 people have been admitted, and the state department says it hopes another 1150 persons can be admitted by September 30, for a total of 1,800 refugees in Fiscal Year 2015.
But that is a fraction of what UNHCR would like to see.
In 2014, UNHCR called on countries to accept 100,000 refugees by the end of 2015, and another 30,000 refugees by the end of 2016.
The expectation was that the US would try to accept as many as half of those refugees – up to 65,000 men, women, and children.
Human rights groups and some members of Congress say the US has the capacity and the moral duty to do so.
Here’s the problem: The US has an annual cap on refugee admissions.
The president sets the annual number of refugees – but only after discussions with federal agencies and members of Congress.
For 2015, that figure is 70,000 refugees worldwide, with persons coming from every part of the globe. (It’s not clear yet how many persons the Obama administration will propose to admit in 2016.)
The US would either have to dramatically increase the total number of refugees it will admit, or deny admissions to everyone who is not from Syria.
US officials say they cannot deny sanctuary from people in other trouble spots.
Even if the Obama administration wanted to admit every Syrian who qualified for refugee status, persuading Congress to go along would be difficult.
The anti-immigrant mood in the US is pronounced, and some in Congress have already balked at regularising the status of an estimated 11 million undocumented residents, largely from Central and South America.
Some legislators have also complained about the potential of admitting members of ISIL, al-Qaeda or other enemy groups with any increase in Syrian refugee processing.
Meanwhile, human rights groups are criticising the Department of Homeland Security for not screening refugees quickly enough.
Right now, it is taking about 18 to 24 months to vet applicants.
US officials say they have to be careful not to jeopardise the country’s security by letting in potentially dangerous people.
They also say that trying to verify Syrian refugees’ information is very difficult because of the civil war.
US officials say they have already spent more than $4bn since 2011 to help Syrians escaping their country’s civil war. But they insist the US cannot let everyone in.
They say the US goal, and the international community’s goal, is ending the civil war and making it safe for Syrians to go home again.