The United States will increase the number of refugees it admits to allow in more people fleeing violence in Central America, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.
In a speech at the National Defense University, Kerry said the expansion of the Refugee Admissions Program will be directed toward people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, to “offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey many are currently tempted to begin, making them easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits.”
The United States already plans to admit 85,000 refugees from around the world in the fiscal year that began in October, but only 3,000 spaces are set aside for Central Americans. The total allotment is 15,000 more refugees than in the previous year and includes 10,000 Syrians referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees under a special vetting process that typically takes 18 to 24 months. The ceiling for refugees is even higher for 2017, when it will rise to 100,000.
Kerry did not say how many more Central American refugees would be admitted and when the expansion would take effect.
The State Department said refugees will be selected for resettlement in the United States in collaboration with the UNHCR and a number of nongovernmental agencies it works with to orient and relocate new refugees around the country. Among those who will be considered in need of refugee protection are people targeted by criminal gangs, human rights defenders and “those who may be at imminent risk of harm.”
Since the Syrian crisis began with peaceful anti-government protests in 2011, the United States has donated more than $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid related to Syrians alone. Most has gone directly to help shelter, feed and clothe refugees, but some has helped governments in neighboring countries that are burdened with massive numbers of refugees. Officials say that helping refugees near the countries they have fled will prevent them from going to other countries, as has happened in Europe when humanitarian aid to Syrians dried up.
President Obama plans to hold a summit at the U.N. General Assembly this fall in which he will urge nations to provide even more humanitarian admissions and funding for refugees from around the world.
Refugees already are at the center of a divisive debate in the presidential primary campaigns. Republican Donald Trump has proposed building a wall along the Mexican border and called for a ban on Muslim immigrants.
The admission of more refugees from Central American countries comes amid an immigration crackdown in which women and children from the region were rounded up and deported after they were denied asylum.
On Monday, more than 100 Democrats signed a letter accusing the Obama administration of “inhumanely” deporting refugees threatened with violence in their home countries. The White House has said it will not stop the raids.
Kerry defended the stepped-up admissions as a response to the worst global refugee crisis since World War II.
“We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans by welcoming those in need of our help to this great country of ours,” said Kerry. “That’s who we are. That’s what we do.
“We have the ability to protect ourselves even as we maintain our welcome,” he added.
After the speech, Kerry visited a refugee resettlement center in Silver Spring, Md., to meet with volunteers and speak with some refugees themselves.
“I know sometimes it will look hard,” he told them. “It is hard, but you are very welcome, and you will find America a land of enormous possibilities. Don’t lose faith, okay?”