Is US pledge to take 10,000 Syrians too few to make a difference? (McClatchy Washington Bureau)

WASHINGTON — Advocacy groups are expressing disdain for the Obama administration’s promise to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next fiscal year, saying the number is too low and voicing skepticism that the thousands of Syrians currently in the resettlement pipeline will reach the United States anytime soon.

The Obama administration acknowledged Friday that it will be difficult to resettle 10,000 refugees in the next year. But officials called the goal “achievable” and defended the U.S. response.

While traditionally a world leader in refugee resettlement, the United States has faced criticism for its response to the Syrian conflict; only about 1,600 Syrians have been resettled since the beginning of the ongoing civil war that’s killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions in what advocates call the worst such crisis since World War II.

“It’s a good signal that we’re responding to the crisis but, functionally, it’s not a meaningful dent given the scope of the crisis,” said Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center. “It’s also not meaningful relative to historical precedent. After Vietnam, we were able to have over 200,000 South Vietnamese come to the United States within a year.”

At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby fought back at criticism that the United States response to the crisis was “some sort of paltry decision or it’s not enough.”

“It’s not going to be insignificant for the 10,000 Syrians who’ll get to come to this country,” he told journalists at the daily briefing.

Kirby added that the United States had met its cap of 70,000 refugee resettlements in fiscal year 2014 and was on track to meet the same number again this year. He emphasized that the White House plan was for “at least” 10,000 Syrians to be resettled, implying that more could be admitted.

That sounds ambitious to refugee advocates such as Reisner, whose experience handling the cases of Iraqis and Afghans, including many who worked alongside U.S. forces during wartime, shows a system that operates at a glacial pace, with applicants waiting well beyond the average of 18 to 24 months estimated by the State Department.

“They’re not outliers — so many cases we see take years, more than two years,” Reisner said. “The average number isn’t the meaningful metric.”

A State Department official, speaking on anonymity as per the department’s protocol, explained the mechanics — but not the policy — behind the White House announcement in a media call Friday.

The official said the administration expects to admit 10,000 Syrians within the next fiscal year because they’ll come from the 18,000 that already have been referred to the United States by the U.N. refugee agency. Since June 2014, the official said, the U.N. has referred some 500 to 1,000 Syrians for resettlement in the United States each month, with a focus on the most vulnerable, such as female-headed households and victims of torture.

With about 10,000 of those referrals already in advanced screening stages, the State Department official said, “we believe it is an achievable goal but it’s going to take quite a bit of work.”

Typically, the biggest snags come during the security vetting process, which the State Department official said involves multiple layers and separate screenings from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies.

Refugee advocates say they understand that the security atmosphere has changed since the days when the United States admitted tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cuban refugees at the same time; it’s taken years to recover from the paralyzing effect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Another blow to the resettlement program came in 2011, when two resettled Iraqis were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., and charged with trying to send weapons and cash to al-Qaida. Both pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and lying about their backgrounds when they applied for refugee status.

“The United States can and should vet cases properly — refugees are vetted more closely than any other population coming in. But the United States of America has the capacity to conduct its security vetting much more quickly than two or three years,” said Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection for the Washington-based nonprofit Human Rights First.

Reisner said the current refugee crisis is analogous to what happened with the cases of Iraqis and Afghans, mostly interpreters, who qualified for “special immigrant visas” because of their work with U.S. forces and contractors.

Since fiscal year 2008, the U.S. government issued 11,599 visas under the special immigrant program for Iraqis and Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. But thousands of visas that could have been issued between 2009 and 2013 weren’t — about 6,500 for Afghans and about 19,000 visas for Iraqis.

It took a bipartisan push from Congress to nudge the responsible agencies into speeding up the process for men and women whose lives were at risk in their home countries because of their service to the United States. And many Iraqis and Afghans are still awaiting resettlement.

“A large number of the people fleeing to Europe are Afghans, so this isn’t just a Syrian crisis,” she said.

Reisner said the hope among advocates is that the current burst of attention to the long-festering refugee crisis will result in a similar movement. She said there’s no way to increase the pace without hiring more personnel — and these aren’t easy hires.

“It takes a lot of time. You need specific qualification and security clearances to perform these checks and to access these databases. You need training in specific kinds of law,” she said. “If the United States wants to make significant changes, they have to start that now.”

Acer said the huge numbers of vulnerable Syrians — including more than a million of the 4 million Syrian refugees determined to be in urgent need of resettlement — present the United States with a “defining moment” that puts its moral standing and global reputation at stake.

“Ten thousand just simply reflects no realistic sense of the scale of the needs of this population,” Acer said. “It’s just way too low of a contribution for a nation that is supposed to be a leader globally on refugee protection.”