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Where Does The U.S. Stand Admitting Syrian Refugees Into The Country?


Here's an awkward fact for President Obama. He said the U.S. welcomes more Syrian refugees. Six months later, the State Department's top refugee official acknowledges the U.S. has not made much progress. We questioned Anne Richard six months after the president made his commitment.

The president has said in this fiscal year he wants to bring how many Syrians to the United States?

ANNE RICHARD: Ten thousand...

INSKEEP: Ten thousand.

RICHARD: Syrians would come in this fiscal year.

INSKEEP: And we're in the middle of this 12-month period. How many have come?

RICHARD: Close to 1,400.

INSKEEP: You got a paper there - 1,400, so less than half in half a year. Why is that?

RICHARD: Much less - because we are going to now make a big push.

INSKEEP: To be frank, not too big a push. The U.S. promise to admit 10,000 seems small compared to the millions who fled Syria. Our conversation made clear the U.S. would rather help most refugees stay where they are - mostly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Richard says that's better for them. It's also avoids the litigal controversy of bringing them here. But there is still the president's promise.

Are you still going to meet this goal of 10,000 people in a year - 10,000 Syrians?

RICHARD: What we've done is we've set up a special facility in Jordan to bring in refugees who've been referred by the U.N. refugee agency and, without cutting any corners on the security vetting process, move them faster through our regular process. And how we're going to do that is instead of waiting weeks or months between getting your case put together and then being interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, that will happen the next day. And it all will happen in one place. And we hope this way to really catch up on the numbers of Syrians that we bring to the United States this year.

INSKEEP: You are touching on how hard this is.

RICHARD: It is something that we hear two different messages about. From overseas and from some Americans, we hear that we should be bringing many, many, many more, in-line with our history of bringing 3 million refugees since the 1970s. The other message we're getting - especially from Congress - is to make sure we do nothing to imperil the lives of Americans. And so we have to do both.

INSKEEP: There is a quote from James Comey, the FBI director, that's been repeated and sometimes misquoted according to the fact-checkers in the presidential campaign. But his actual statement before Congress was, if I can summarize, we can go to our databases. We can check a lot of places to see if there is information - suspicious information - about a person. But if they're coming from Syria, there are things we just can't know. And I can never say there's no risk. Is that a fair assessment?

RICHARD: Well, what the FBI director said is that the FBI doesn't have files about the people who are coming forward as refugees. And I think that's very normal because - to explain who some of these refugees are, some of them are poor farmers from southern Syria who have walked across the border into Jordan. There's no reason the FBI would have background information on them. And so what we have to do is use these other techniques to find out if they are who they say they are. And we have to rely on other national security intelligence, law enforcement agencies, to provide that information.

INSKEEP: Right now the administration is well behind the pace for its own goal of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the space of a year. Is political pressure here causing you to take more time than you would rather be doing in letting people in?

RICHARD: No, I think we're trying to put together the best program possible. What I worry about the political discussion is it endangers this American tradition. And we have seen in the past that, you know, the Irish were too dangerous to bring in because they were going to be drunkards and hotheaded and backward. And even the Hungarians and the Vietnamese and the Cubans who were brought in in our modern era - in the '50s and the '70s - there was a majority of Americans who were against that. But leaders stepped forward and said, no, no, no. This is what we have to do. And I think that's what these times call for as well.

INSKEEP: You've spent a couple of years now in something that's been fiercely debated. But I wonder if from the inside there's something about your job that you often feel like is completely not reflected in anybody's political or media account of this.

RICHARD: Well, I meet a lot of refugees. And I find that when people meet refugees, they get it. They get the fact that these are families and that these are people who are really struggling and that they are resilient because they've already survived getting out of their countries. And so I think that Americans need to see more of the faces of refugees like I have. When you meet the individuals, the families, they have kids that are cute. They have grandparents who are wise. They have parents who are caring and want to help everybody.

INSKEEP: Anne Richard, thanks so much.

RICHARD: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Anne Richard is the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.