Minnesota Democrats call for U.S. to take in Syrian refugees ahead of Oct 1st deadline

Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken were two of fourteen Senators who signed a letter last spring urging President Obama to bring 65,000 Syrian refugees to the United States.  Political pressure is building to address the issue of hundreds of thousands of Syrians pouring into Europe.  President Obama faces an October 1st deadline to either maintain or increase the ceiling number for refugee admittance to the United States. The 2014 figure was 70,000 refugees, from all nations. The Senators’ letter read:

Our nation’s founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution and the United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees.  The United States traditionally accepts at least 50 percent of resettlement cases from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  However, we have accepted only approximately 700 refugees since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, an unacceptably low number. While the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, we must also dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement.”

Per the New York Daily News, 364,000 migrants — most of them Syrians — have fled to Europe this year. KSTP News reported this week that, “Iraq, Bhutan, Burma, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo comprise the largest makeup of refugees accepted in the U.S. Meanwhile, only about 1,000 Syrians have been resettled in America this fiscal year.”   The United States prioritizes refugees and Syrians are a lower priority then– for example– Iraqis who assisted the U.S. during the war or ethnic or religious minorities in countries like Burma or persons from the former Soviet Union with family in the U.S.

Per the New York Times, “The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental agency, has urged President Obama to open American borders to 100,000 Syrians in the next year, in addition to expanding opportunities for resettlement for other migrants.”

Senator Klobuchar told KARE 11 this week “I am not advocating that we take the lead, I am advocating that we show some American spirit here by being part of the solution.  Not shoulder everything, not even shoulder most of it, but just open our doors to a few more of these refugees who will be screened for security reasons and would come in on a legal basis.”

The United States has contributed more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria since the civil war began in 2011 – the most from any single donor per the U.S. State Department.  This is a huge increase from the $1.7 billion that had been provided as of January, 2014.  In addition to the humanitarian aid, the U.S. has provided $400 million to the “moderate opposition” to the Bashar al-Assad regime.  It was confirmed today that Russian military consultants are on the ground supporting Assad as the conflict looks to grow into a new proxy war.

The U.S. federal government pays for a refugee cash assistance program, refugee medical assistance, and provides SNAP food stamp benefits as well.  Refugees are eligible to become U.S. citizens after five years.  The United States permits up to 70,000 refugees to come to the country every year, working with the United Nations which orchestrates the referrals.  Existing laws would have to change in order to meet the requests by Democrats in Congress to bring 65,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom have been involved in the fighting as rebel forces.  With no formal relations with the Syrian government, screening refugees for security concerns would be a nearly impossible challenge.

The New York Times reported last week that Eric P. Schwartz, the former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration under President Obama, now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said presidential leadership would help drive public response.  With Pope Francis scheduled to address Congress on September 24th, it’s anticipated that he’ll call on leaders to address the migrant crisis by allowing more refugees into the U.S.

Whether the Syrians leaving their homeland should be considered “refugees” or “economic migrants” is up for debate and would also affect how they would be treated by existing American immigration laws.  Twin Cities World Refugee day explains the difference,” Economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families while refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.”

Some in Minnesota’s Congressional delegation have also weighed in.  Yesterday, Rep. Keith Ellison, (MN-O5) joined Franken and Klobuchar in calling for the President to settle more Syrians in the U.S.  When constituents in St. Cloud this summer asked Congressman Tom Emmer, (MN-06) about the possibility of Syrian refugees settling in Minnesota he called it the “Syrian myth” and that “he’d checked with the State Department, who said that there wasn’t a chance of Syrian refugees coming to Minnesota.”

The President sets the refugee ceiling number in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act and in consultation with Congress.  The deadline for the new ceiling is October 1, the start of the new fiscal year.