Four and a half years after the start of the civil war in Syria, 4 million refugees have fled their homeland. As the situation deteriorates at home and in neighboring countries, many have looked beyond Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan to Europe. This year alone, at least 2,400 have died at sea.
Photos of a Syrian toddler, washed ashore after drowning aside his mother and brother on their way to Greece, have caught the world’s attention. Already, some European countries have changed their immigration policies, though aid workers are asking for more from the international community. The U.S. in particular is under pressure to accept more refugees but has yet to do so due to security concerns and bureaucracy.
The White House and the State Department are now examining ways for the U.S. to receive more than the current 1,500 Syrians per year. “The international community is looking at the United States right now to determine what additional steps we can take to try to confront, or help Europe confront, this difficult challenge,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday. “We’re certainly mindful of the urgency around increasing the resources and response.”
While the recent focus on the crisis may grease the wheels, it could still be some time before the U.S. accepts more than its current quota of Syrian refugees.
“Part of it is the wheels of policy turn very slowly in U.S.,” Joshua Landis, editor of Syria Comment and Head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress. “Very few [Iraqis resettled] in the first year of the invasion of Iraq. Since then the number of Iraqis seeking asylum has been much higher and going up.”
The president could potentially give an executive order to have more Syrian refugees resettled, but that has become more difficult since the Refugee Act was enabled into law. Additionally, many Americans don’t see Syria as their problem in the same way as Iraq or Afghanistan.
“America has much less exposure to Syria and has done much less in Syria in terms of provoking this problem,” Landis said. “I think Americans feel much less responsible in taking Syrians in over the long run as opposed to Iraqis or Vietnamese.”
There have also been recent waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in the West. Though U.S. immigration policy is typically focused on people from Mexico and Central America, when refugees from the Middle East are concerned, the conversation shifts to security and counterterrorism. While part of this is genuine concern, it is likely driven by undercurrents of Islamophobia. “The growth of anti-Islamic spirit in the west has only increased over last decade or so and America is catching this disease,” said Landis. “The number of various little political groups taking it upon themselves to police Islamic influence has grown exponentially in last decade and that’s going to make it very hard for immigration.”
In June, the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a Congressional hearing on the issue of Syrian refugees.
In the hearing, experts intricately detailed the dire conditions faced by Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war while warning of “clean skin” terrorists — referring to undercover members of radical Islamist groups.
Subcommittee Head Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who has been accused of religious intolerance in the past, has regularly spoken out against the prospect of receiving Syrian refugees. In January, King, along with Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Candice Miller (R-MI), wrote a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice warning of security risks from letting in more Syrians.
“The resettlement of such a high number of Syrian refugees raises serious national security concerns,” they wrote. “We are concerned about the possibility of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploiting the refugee resettlement process to mask the deployment of operatives into the West.”
While security concerns are natural, refugees are heavily vetted by groups like the United Nations who use iris scanning technology. American intelligence agencies also coordinate with their Middle Eastern counterparts to weed out any Syrians who may have links to extremist groups. Furthermore, each refugee is thoroughly vetted by American officials before they are granted resettlement.
“They check people so thoroughly before they arrive,” Daryl Grisgraber, a Senior Advocate at Refugees International, told ThinkProgress shortly after the hearing. “Everyone understands security concerns but we can’t let worries over terrorism or counterterrorism overrule international law or humanitarian commitments.”
But we may be seeing a shift among the American public here. Part of the credit for the change could go to the photograph of the deceased Syrian toddler, which made international headlines last week. For instance, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who has taken one of the most severe stances on immigration in the current race, said that the “unbelievable humanitarian problem” in Syria means that the U.S. should take in more Syrian refugees. “I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis, with what’s happening, you have to,” Trump said to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday.