The administration’s response comes as a top European Union official earlier this week proposed spreading about 160,000 refugees across nearly two dozen countries.
So far, the United States has lagged far behind several European countries in its refugee aid efforts, largely due to the time-consuming screening procedure to block Islamist militants and criminals from entering the United States under the guise of being legitimate refugees.
Almost 1,600 Syrian refugees have arrived in the United States since the civil war began, according to State Department figures. Many of the Syrians so far have ended up moving to Michigan and California, where there are sizeable Arabic-speaking communities and where they often have family living already, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which helps resettle a quarter of all refugees to this country.
When asylum seekers accepted for resettlement first arrive in the United States, most go to orientation programs run by a coalition of faith-based and refugee non-profit groups. These groups receive federal funds to help welcome the arriving refugees, determine the best place in the country for them to relocate, find housing, learn some English and start looking for jobs.
As refugees, they are eligible for Medicaid and become permanent residents authorized to work in the country. After a year, they are eligible for a green card, and five years after that, they can become U.S. citizens.
“We want them to be able to transition to self-sufficiency,” Appleby said. “The idea of the program is to stay. They could return, but most of them will stay. Then they’ll try to petition for families to join them if they can.”
As both American and European Union officials scrambled this week to fashion a response to the massive influx of refugees from the Mideast and North Africa, former administration officials and foreign affairs experts said the current predicament underscored how leaders in both regions had failed to adequately assess the risks posed by the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq.
Europeans leaders have struggled to unite over a plan, with some countries such as Germany welcoming refugees and others such as Hungary being staunchly resistant. In the United States, the administration has faced pressure from some lawmakers to do more.
Julie Smith, who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Biden from April 2012 to June 2013, said that while the administration has repeatedly looked at how to cope with instability in the region but did not anticipate this chain of events.
“It was hard for us in 2011, 2012 to look this far out and imagine how bad this could actually get,” she said. “There were many points in this crisis where it looked like [Syrian President Bashar] Assad would fall and the rebels would win the day. We allowed that optimism to color our policy” decisions.
“Shame on all of us for not thinking this through,” said Smith, who directs the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Robert Ford, who served as U.S. deputy ambassador to Iraq between 2008 and 2010 and then U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, said top policymakers were aware that as Iraq became increasingly unstable in 2012 and 2013, “there was an understanding the humanitarian situation would get worse and worse as the security situation deteriorated.”
But he added, “I don’t think in 2012 and 2013 anyone had in their heads there would be tens of thousands of Syrian boat people going into Europe.”
“I don’t think anybody’s really surprised that this is happening,” said Ford, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It’s a different question to ask what is to be done.”
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed some openness to supporting the admission to additional refugees, even as a few of them have faulted the administration for not doing more to address the root crisis in Syria.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), both members of the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed support for the number released Thursday.
“That’s showing we’re playing our role with the international community,” Kaine said. “But there needs to be a conversation ... about what the upstream strategy is to halt the flow of these refugees from a pretty horrible situation.”
Like many Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called the refugee crisis a result of President Obama’s failure to properly deal with the Syrian civil war. He suggested proposals to raise the existing U.S. cap on refugee resettlements amounted to “a Band-Aid on a bullet hole ... an inconsequential patch.”
But Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that while he hadn't seen the specifics of the administration's plan, he thought this country needed to participate. "We have been a country that has allowed refugees to come in and over the long haul it's been to our benefit."
Others were disappointed, saying the figure was insufficient. Among them were officials with the non-profit and faith-based groups that sent a letter to Obama Wednesday asking the refugee cap be raised from 70,000 to 200,000, with 100,000 slots allocated just for refugees from Syria.
“It’s a symbolic gesture,” said Appleby with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s not going to ease the burden in any significant way for Europe or countries in the Middle East.”
David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee said the announcement was "cold comfort to the victims of the Syrian conflict."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has submitted more than 18,000 names to the U.S. government. But it takes 18 to 24 months for the average Syrian refugee to be investigated and granted refugee status.
Earnest emphasized Thursday that while the announcement was a way of scaling up the administration’s response to the crisis, “it does not, however, reflect the intent by the administration to cut any corners when it comes to the security protocols that are in place, prior to any refugee traveling to the United States.”
The United States ranks as the largest donor to the Syrian refugee crisis, and Jon B. Alterman, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that part of the motivation behind that aid “has been about keeping the problem over there, and not having it come over here.”
A senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Obama’s aides had been working for months to determine the upper limit of Syrian refugees they could accept. “The president pushed his team to come up with an aggressive number that was feasible in the short term, recognizing this is a small part of the overall response, but an important part,” the official said.
On Thursday, Earnest emphasized that the decision to admit more people displaced by Syria’s ongoing civil war should not be interpreted as a reason people should “entrust themselves or their loved ones to a human trafficker or somebody who claims that they can get them into the United States.”
White House officials have also made it clear that they have no intention of dispatching more troops to the Middle East, even as they emphasized that a political resolution to the fighting represents the only long-term response to the current humanitarian crisis.
“Well, I do want it to be clear that ultimately the refugee crisis is a symptom of the horrendous conditions in Syria, and that ultimately a lot of these refugees would presumably want to return home once conditions are safe, “ said White House principal deputy secretary Eric Schultz Wednesday. “So at the end of the day, the only true resolution to this will be a Syria that is safe for them to return home to.”
Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in an interview that he doesn’t “anticipate that there would be a major shift in U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict, regardless of the scale of the refugee problem.”
But he added that even before the recent arrival of so many refugees on European soil, top administration officials had been discussing how to introduce “bit more nuance, and a bit more flexibility” into their resettlement program for Syrian refugees. “There’s a humanitarian strain” in the administration, Itani said, that had manifested itself in the policy discussions surrounding Syrian refugees. “It's not the dominant one, but it’s there.”
Mike DeBonis and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.