The United States accepts more refugees for permanent residency than any other nation — more than 3 million people since 1975 and typically more than half the total resettled anywhere each year.
This generosity is not an open-door policy, however, and tends to favor groups with political constituencies in the United States or important to U.S. foreign policy.
More than 100,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, and about 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees came to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War. The largest numbers of refugees now come from Iraq; more than 12,000 were resettled in fiscal 2012. Since 2007, the program has admitted about 85,000 Iraqis.
In 2012, more than 14,000 refugees came from Burma, 1,900 from Cuba and 1,750 from Iran.
But Syria, even though it is a cosmopolitan anchor of wealth and education in the Middle East, has few strong cultural or political ties to the United States.
The State Department said Thursday that the United States wants to bring in up to 35,000 permanent refugees from the Middle East and South Asia in fiscal 2014. The target would include vulnerable Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians and Pakistanis, as well as Syrians.
The U.N. refugee agency has set an ambitious goal of moving more than 30,000 Syrians into permanent or long-term homes abroad by next October. The United States might take as many as 2,000, although it is unlikely to meet its own target.
The few Syrians who have already made it through the U.S. resettlement maze or who are in the latter stages of vetting mostly left Syria before the worst fighting began, U.S. and international relief officials said. Those left behind are presumed to have a harder time proving they are free of any ties to terrorism, given shifting neighborhood allegiances and battle lines and the growing factionalization of rebel groups.
A few nations, including Germany, are taking large numbers of Syrian refugees for long-term refuge. Unlike the U.S. refugee resettlement program, these asylum options are intended to be temporary and do not offer a path to citizenship.
The United States does offer a form of short-term asylum, however. Syrians who were already in the country on work, student or other temporary visas as of last June are eligible to remain at least into 2015.
In 2013, more than 1,300 Syrians applied for and received that extension.
“If the United States wanted to allow Syrians to come in through an open process, they could do that,” said Nadeen Aljijakli, a Syrian American immigration lawyer in Cleveland.
That process could be temporary relocation, as in Germany, or a further expansion of coverage for Syrians allowed to stay in the United States while the conflict continues, Aljijakli said. Or it could be a significant expansion of the permanent resettlement program, she said.
“There’s no process. It’s just not available. I believe it’s a policy choice and a priority choice,” Aljijakli said. “This is not a priority.”