By Annika Lichtenbaum
As noted on SETF’s blog last week, the coming of winter has brought even more misery to the refugees of the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, the reluctance of other (particularly Western) nations to offer asylum to Syrians is compounding this suffering, as well as increasing the burden on Syria’s neighbor states by forcing them to bear the brunt of the refugee flows. In fact, in the nearly three years since the conflict began, the United States has accepted less than a hundred refugees. To be fair, this problem has not gone entirely unaddressed, for months, Congress has been debating a comprehensive immigration bill, certain provisions of which (including a proposal to eliminate the one-year filing deadline for those seeking asylum) aim to make it easier for Syrians to resettle in the U.S.
However, with such broad legislation, the chances for disagreement are vastly increased, and the bill has stalled in committee. Additionally, concerns abound that the proposed bill maintains certain existing restrictions on immigration (for example, “Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Ground [TRIG]” bars on those who have contributed to armed rebel groups) that would prevent many Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. Provisions like these, critics like Sen. Dick Durbin have argued, should not apply in the Syrian case, as vast numbers of Syrians (not to mention the U.S. government) have aided the Free Syrian Army in some way in their daily lives. Despite these failings, this piece of legislation remained the only plan on the table that dealt with the Syrian refugee problem until Jan. 5, when the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to address this particular crisis.
The first panelist to give testimony at the hearing was Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Richard went into detail concerning the effects of the refugee influx on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, states that border Syria and have therefore been asked to maintain “open border” policies for the country’s refugees (providing them a relative safe haven, but destabilizing the host nations themselves). She went on to describe the efforts, totaling around $1.3 billion, of the U.S. State Department and USAID in the region to alleviate the refugees’ suffering, including ongoing financial support for the neighbor states. Specifically regarding refugee settlement, Richard spoke of the general success rate of the U.S. efforts and said she expected that Syrians would soon benefit from said program. However, she also warned, “it is not unusual for third-country resettlement to play only a limited role in the early years of a conflict,” and while she mentioned UNHCR’s plea for more non-neighbor states to take in refugees of this particular conflict, did not discuss specific plans for the U.S. to do so.
Nancy Lindborg, Assistant USAID Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, next discussed the challenges of providing humanitarian aid in and around Syria, but did not touch upon the issue of resettlement in the U.S. The final panelist was Molly Groom, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Policy. In her testimony, Groom described the refugee vetting process and the concept of TRIG bars, which she admitted do not account for routine transactions and can therefore prevent otherwise eligible refugees from immigrating. She went on to say that the Depts. of State and Homeland Security are discussing frameworks to deal with the concept of TRIG bars in the Syrian context. However, she did not elaborate on whether any of these procedural tweaks were projected to increase the total number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in the near future. And in fact, though each of the panelists in turn expressed deep concern for the plight of the refugees and discussed U.S. humanitarian efforts and even resettlement plans, none went into detail on how (or whether) these plans would increase Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S.
After the initial testimony had been given, Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested that the committee explore other avenues to ease the Syrians’ immigration into the U.S., because the all-encompassing bill under consideration was unlikely to pass. He proposed separate legislation that would address the Syrian situation in particular, thereby avoiding unproductive debate on broader immigration questions and hopefully accelerating relief for the refugee population. Sen. Dick Durbin agreed, citing the still-present problems with the current legislation as further evidence.
The efforts of these lawmakers illustrate an increasingly inescapable truth: opening borders to Syrian refugees is one of the most meaningful ways in which other countries can help alleviate the effects of this crisis, and the U.S. is falling way behind. Though 135,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in the U.S., the rigidity of the barriers described above has prevented all but a few from receiving it. And the simple fact is that though the reluctance to house Syrians is by no means limited to the United States, Europe has already accepted many more refugeesfrom Syria than the U.S.
Furthermore, if this legislation moves forward, it would not be the first of its kind. In fact, to find a significant precedent for extending asylum to a disenfranchised community from a Middle Eastern conflict, one need look no further than Iraq, from which the U.S. ultimately accepted thousands of refugees. Indeed, in her testimony in the hearing in question, Assistant Secretary Richard even mentioned past efforts to bring Iraqi refugees to the U.S. by adding refugee processing staff to the existing team in Baghdad.
Hopefully, separating out this issue from broader immigration reform will call more congressional (and public) attention to this particular problem and highlight the immediacy of the Syrian situation .As demonstrated in the hearing in question, Sens. Graham, Durbin, and Klobuchar are clearly willing to be more proactive on the legislative front on this issue going forward, supported by Sens. Leahy and Whitehouse, proving that this effort is a bipartisan one that merits serious consideration.