The Obama administration is on track to make its goal of admitting and resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of September, despite concerns that Islamic militants could enter with them.
"The current pace of arrivals will continue through the end of this fiscal year so we may exceed 10,000," said Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration in a conference call with reporters on Friday. "For next year, we will continue to welcome large numbers of Syrians."
After a slow start, the resettlements accelerated to 8,000 by early August; Syrians who have fled violence and persecution in their country's brutal civil war. More than half of the arrivals are under 18, according to Richard.
"It is moving fast. The month of July has been our busiest month," says Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of Church World Service in Jersey City, N.J. Church World Service is one of nine official resettlement agencies that implements the federal program. The Jersey City office resettled five Syrian families in July with more expected in the next two months, says Mahmoud.
"We do expect it to be heavy because we've received notification from the Department of State that they want to meet those numbers."
The Obama administration has been under intense pressure from aid agencies and advocacy groups that raised doubts the resettlement goals would be met. In May, more than half of the Democrats in the Senate signed a letter urging the president to accelerate the program after Canada resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees this year.
The administration's goal is now within sight despite a political backlash from Republicans. The Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, wants to ban anyone coming from an area with terrorism ties and a majority of governors, all but one a Republican, insist Syrian refugees are not welcome because some could pose a security threat. The opposition has grown after last year's terrorist attacks in Paris. State legislatures have proposed laws to bar refugees, but state governors have no legal authority to halt federal immigration programs.
The opposition centers on concerns that security screenings are inadequate and Islamist militants could slip in among the newcomers.
Administration officials insist there are no security shortcuts. Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that "hundreds" of Syrians have been denied entry based on rigorous security checks. "Our approval rates are 80 percent our denial rates are 7 percent with the remainder on hold," he said in a State Department briefing on Friday.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters on Wednesday that the increase in arrivals was due to a "surge" of State Department and Homeland Security officials in the region and the vetting has been stepped up. "We have added security checks," he said, in an enhanced process specifically for Syrians.
The roughly 8,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in 38 states where nonprofit groups, faith-based communities and volunteers organize resettlement.
"We don't just dump them someplace in this country," Johnson told reporters. "They are resettled in communities that are able to absorb refugees."
Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, an advocacy organization based in Washington, said there are multiple checks that begin with the United Nation's refugee agency. UNHCR identifies those who are most vulnerable, which typically includes single mothers and children. The total of Syrians admitted to the U.S. includes 78 percent women and children.
The U.S. security checks are stringent, he said. "I would even dare to say that if you are running an organization that wants to harm this country, there are much easier ways to come to the U.S. than to come as a resettled refugee."
Still, he said, 10,000 is a modest number compared to the refugees hosted by Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In Lebanon, one person in four is a refugee.
"I hope that next year the U.S. will increase the number, but it's sticking to your commitments," he said referring to the administration goal.
The goal will likely be met before Obama heads to the U.N. at the end of September to urge world leaders to admit more refugees and step up funding for relief organizations. For countries that host large numbers of refugees, Obama will urge them to "let refugees work and children go to school," says the State Department's Anne Richard. The president is convening a "Refugee Summit" in New York to address a historic surge of civilian displacement, now an international crisis that stems primarily from wars in the Middle East and Africa.