Background Briefing on the United States Refugee Admissions Program

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
September 9, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you, Justin. Thanks to everyone for joining us this afternoon. In light of the news, obviously, we’ve all been following closely out of Europe with the refugee situation over the past couple of weeks, we thought it was advantageous to put together a call for all of you on background with a senior State Department official to talk about what the U.S. is doing to respond, but also more broadly about our Refugee Admissions Program. Just for your own purposes, the senior State Department official joining us this afternoon is [Senior State Department Official]. As I said, the rules for attribution is [Senior State Department Official] will be henceforth referred to as a senior State Department official.

So without any further comment from me, I’ll hand it over to [Senior State Department Official] to give some brief remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to your question. [Senior State Department Official.]

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. Thanks very much. We’re having a busy day here at the State Department. Secretary Kerry and I went this morning and met with members of the House and Senate judiciary committees to present the President’s proposal for refugee admissions in Fiscal Year 2016. We were accompanied by officials of the Department of Homeland Security United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – so USCIS – and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. With the members we discussed the work State Department officials are doing to address the recent refugee crisis in Europe.

These consultations are held annually. It’s a legal requirement that they be carried out by a cabinet member, and it’s done just before the beginning of the new fiscal year. During our consultations, Secretary Kerry proposed increasing the number of refugees that will be accepted by the United States through the Refugee Resettlement Program. This is an increase above the current level of 70,000 that we have had for three years now in Fiscal Years 2013, ‘14, and ‘15.

Today’s consultations discussed the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program that will address resettlement needs of refugees from close to 70 countries, including Syria. Each year we designate ceilings based on the anticipated needs, but as the year progresses these numbers fluctuate based on the situation on the ground. The Administration is actively considering a range of approaches to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, including with regard to refugee resettlement. We are also in regular contact with countries in the Middle East and Europe who have been greatly impacted by the increased number of refugees.

It is important to note that while we are speaking today about the United States Refugee Resettlement Program, our primary goal when speaking about Syrian refugees is to get them home again so that there can be peace in Syria and that they can return home in peace. In the meantime, we – this bureau, the Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau provides a great deal of humanitarian assistance overseas through international organizations and some of the best nongovernmental organizations. We also seek to protect the refugees in the places to which they have fled. But our hope and our main goal is that someday refugees can return home when the conflict ends.

Why don’t we take questions now?

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much. We’ll open up to questions now, Justin.

OPERATOR: Certainly. And as a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, you can go ahead and hit * followed by 1. It looks as if our first question comes from the line of Michael Gordon of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Could you tell us, please, what the range of numbers is? You say you want to – the Secretary wants to increase the number of refugees that are admitted, so what is the range you’re looking at and what does that cost? And then it seems that part of the problem is vetting, in that the UN has submitted a list but it takes a long time to vet these people. Are you looking at committing more resources to speed up that vetting process? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Secretary talked about a range of different numbers, but I will not be sharing them with you today. And there was varying views within the group from the judiciary committees of the House and Senate about how receptive they were to increasing the numbers of refugees coming.

And the process to bring refugees here is careful and deliberate, and that’s – as a result, it takes a while. It takes between 18 to 24 months between when a refugee is referred to us and when they – if approved, when they end up arriving in the United States. And a big reason for this is the care that’s put into the security vetting for them. It involves several aspects. Part of it is that every refugee has their sort of case file put together with help from organizations that we fund overseas, and then those files and the refugees’ families themselves are interviewed by someone from the Department of Homeland Security, from USCIS. And then we also check their names against a whole series of U.S. Government databases to make sure that they’re not already in there – some sort of derogatory information about them.

What we’re trying to do is weed out people who are liars, who are criminals, or would-be terrorists. And this is something that slows down the process and it’s taken very seriously by everyone involved in it.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Elise Labott of CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. A couple of things. We talked about that you’re asking to increase the number from around the world, including Syria. I was wondering at this point, given, as you noted, that there’s a lot of activity right now with the migrants in Europe, particularly Syrian refugees, what type of priority right now in terms of your quota are you looking for Syrian refugees? Is – are you looking to increase the quota on top of Syrians? Like, is there a special category for them?

And then also, you say that obviously the goal is to get the Syrians back home, but we are going on over five years into the civil war. So I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon. So I mean, at what point can you not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and just try and get some of them out of there given the increased flow?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let’s see. It’s over four years, four-and-a-half years, coming up on five years next spring that this has been going on. And the numbers have climbed over the course of the crisis. What to me is astonishing is how many people inside Syria who have been affected by the war who are dependent on humanitarian assistance or are displaced – there’s over 7 million people displaced – have chosen not to leave Syria but to stay there. That’s a very large population. One of the reasons we try to get as much aid as possible inside Syria is so that they can survive there – since they’re choosing to stay there, they can survive and not have to flee. Then there’s the assistance – over – there’s the assistance we’ve given to the neighbors who are hosting a lot of the refugees in the immediate area around Syria. Between the money that’s gone inside Syria and the money for the neighbors that’s all humanitarian, meaning it’s for keeping the lives of innocent civilians going and protecting them, that’s $4 billion since the start of the crisis.

And now as the – and throughout we have had our Refugee Resettlement Program operating for other parts of the world – we only got referrals from UNHCR in the last year or so. We – in larger numbers. We now have 17,000 referred by UNHCR. So we’re – we’ve all along been planning to bring more to the United States, but the numbers that we bring under this program is sort of careful and by design. And what’s happening in Europe is that people are walking out and walking to Europe and getting there on their own energies and showing up.

So one of the things that we were talking about here earlier, before this briefing, is the difference between having someone show up in your country and seek asylum and having someone resettled as part of this program, this annual program of refugee resettlement. So the U.S. leads the world in resettling refugees. We take 70,000 per year, and that’s 70 percent of all the refugees resettled, so we take more than all the other countries combined. And what you’re seeing happening, though, in other countries is that people are showing up and requesting asylum, saying that they can’t go back home again. And so that’s, as you can tell, it’s not a – there’s nothing – there’s no careful design in it; it’s a spontaneous flow.

Now, migrants and refugees have been heading from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and the Middle East to Europe for a long time. And there’ve been crises in the Mediterranean. Two years ago, we were looking at the lives lost around Lampedusa. What’s different now, I think, is that the numbers have picked up so much and that it’s affecting so many European countries because so many are coming all at once.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Margaret Brennan of CBS. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this.


QUESTION: Can you explain what the formula is for coming up with 70,000 as the magic number? If it increases above that, can you just sort of help us understand what the formula is and how that math adds up?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There is no formula. What has happened is the program – there’s always been refugees and immigrants coming to the United States. Since the time of pilgrims, obviously, there’s been refugees coming, fleeing for religious persecution. The program really got started in the ’70s during the Vietnam era. And the high point around that time – it went from 150,000 to 200,000, so much higher than it is today. But then it’s gone up and down over time and it completely dropped and stopped after September 11th, 2001.

So since that point, we’ve been building the program back up bit by bit. And what’s different about the last three years is we set a target and we actually met it. Last year, we came within 13 people of hitting 70,000 refugees brought. And this was seen as a good thing, that we were managing the program well, and that we were delivering what we said – we were bringing refugees in throughout the entire year and not having them all show up at the end of our fiscal year in September. We were providing – after the economic problems in 2008, Eric Schwartz, the first assistant secretary for the Obama Administration, worked to increase the amount of money per capita that is spent on helping the refugees resettle in the U.S. for the first three months that they’re here.

So there were a lot of sort of good things done to tighten up the program and help it run better. It’s a public-private partnership with nine groups across the United States. Six are faith-based, different religious groups that help resettle refugees, and three are nonsectarian. And we ended up resettling refugees in over 300 places around the United States; it’s some 190 towns and cities, but there are like 300 different sort of storefronts, if you will, where refugees are resettled.

And so we have been building up to 70,000, had it there at three years, and the thinking was we could now – the thinking all along this year was we could move to increasing it, and some sort of a modest increase. Given what’s going on in the world today, I know that there’s a lot of people outside the Administration and inside the Administration too in very senior positions who would like to increase it significantly. The question becomes: Will Congress support that? Can we move this process that we have that doesn’t turn on a dime to start bringing larger numbers sooner? That’s hard, but that is clearly what some people are looking for.

MODERATOR: Okay, thanks. I think we have only time for a couple more questions. Next question please.

OPERATOR: From the line of Carol Morello of Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. As you know, the International Rescue Committee and this group of 14 Democratic senators back in May called for an increase along the lines of 65,000 people by the end of next year. Is there any scenario in which you might have an increase of that high or even higher? And would any increase that you have be limited largely to Syrians since there are people from other countries who are looking at what’s going on in Europe as sort of their window of opportunity? Is the increase for Syrians or might other people from other countries be finding – be allowed to come in in increased numbers as well? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: When we talk about increasing the overall numbers, we’re talking about increases for people from around the world. The top three groups we resettle these days are from Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. If we increase, in addition to bringing more Syrians, which is already in the plan, we would like to admit more African refugees next year. We just recently – let’s see if I can find this number – we recently brought more refugees from Africa than we had in some time. I can’t find that number, I’m sorry. And that was another goal that we’d had for the Administration and something we would like to continue to do especially for people who fled Congo and have had – torture victims or people who were injured in war or rape victims, because they’d be able to start their lives over in the U.S. So we have a growing number of – we intend to have a growing number of Syrians and Congolese, no matter what the total overall number is.

MODERATOR: Great. I think this has to be our last question. I apologize. Please go ahead.

OPERATOR: Sure. Our last question comes from the line of Lesley Wroughton of Reuters news.

QUESTION: Thanks. I was wondering whether there were specific requests or discussions going on with Europe right now about trying to ease the influx from Syria. Even during the Kosovo war, the U.S. temporarily took in refugees. But is there specific discussions going on right now where the Europeans have asked the U.S. to take on more refugees?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Secretary works constantly, on a daily basis I would say, with his counterparts from the leading countries of Europe and is in close touch with his counterparts in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, of course. So he has had conversations, for example, with the German foreign minister in the last 24 hours, and of course this topic came up. And we are asking ourselves here in this building what should the U.S. do to respond to this crisis. We already are the leading donor to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. We already are the leading donor to the International Organization for Migration. Some of our contributions are being used to help provide food, water, and legal assistance to refugees transiting on the periphery of Europe – so Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. We’ve set up a working group to coordinate State Department responses to any requests we get from Europe. My sense is Europeans are so focused right now on this on a daily basis that they’re not really looking to us yet to help them, but of course, we are thinking about what can we do to be helpful.

There’s also a series of meetings coming up – international meetings – where these issues will be discussed. The first one is the UN General Assembly. We have the Pope’s visit to Washington, then we’ll be going up to New York for the UN General Assembly meetings. So that’s a perfect location to have a broad international conversation about this. So things are being done to get that organized. Then I’ll be going to Geneva for the annual meeting of UNHCR’s Executive Committee, then there’s a Global Forum for Migration and Development that happens every year, and this year the host is Turkey. So I think that this will be very much on the agenda there.

So conversations about what we can do and how we can be helpful will be taking place in a lot of this. One important piece that we will remind people of and then recommit to, I think, is providing assistance – humanitarian assistance – inside Syria and around the region so that people don’t have to flee further, so that they can make it inside of their own country or to the neighboring countries to which they’ve fled. So there’ll be more on that in the coming weeks.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, thank you again, Senior State Department Official, for taking the time out to talk to the many journalists who have questions about this issue, and thanks to all of the journalists who joined us for this call. We have to end there, unfortunately. But again, everybody have a great afternoon, and thanks for joining. Take care.