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Kerry Promises More U.S. Asylum for Refugees, but Will Congress Pay for It?

Under EU pressure, the U.S. agreed to increase refugee quotas Sunday.

<> on September 20, 2015 in Beli Manastir, Croatia.
<> on September 20, 2015 in Beli Manastir, Croatia.

After coming under fire for failing to do more to help the flood of Syrian refugees, Washington announced plans Sunday to accept up to 85,000 asylum-seekers next year — up from 70,000. And in 2017, the United States will increase its refugee quota to 100,000, Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Berlin.

“This step is in keeping with America’s best tradition as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” Kerry said.

The announcement comes as the United States inches closer to the Sept. 30 end of the 2015 fiscal year. Washington typically unveils new refugee quotas at the end of each fiscal year, and last week, under mounting pressure from European leaders to bear more of the Syrian refugee burden, the Obama administration announced they would reconsider existing quotas.

Kerry, who is in Berlin to meet with his German counterpart to discuss the refugee crisis, said a large number of the 85,000 who will come to the United States during the upcoming fiscal year will be from Syria. But many others will come from war zones in Africa, including from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since the start of the civil war.

The United States spent more than $1 billion to settle 70,000 refugees to the country during the 2014-2015 fiscal year. To add another 15,000 would likely cost the government at least another $200 million. The White House does not need congressional approval to expand the refugee quota, but it will depend on Congress for the funding necessary to accommodate those who seek asylum in the United States. 

Some Republicans have voiced opposition to the acceptance of Syrian refugees, pointing to a case of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky who in 2011 were found guilty of terrorism after their fingerprints were tracked to roadside bombs in Iraq. That case prompted legal changes to the U.S. refugee program, which has significantly slowed down the process for asylum-seekers desperate for Washington’s approval for settlement status.

Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP presidential candidate from Kentucky, said it’s cases like the one in 2011 that gives the United States reason to be “weary of some of the threat that comes from mass migration.”

An increase of 15,000 may sound dramatic, but Germany recently announced it plans to receive as many as 1 million refugees over the course of the next year. European leaders are slated to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to debate a solution for the distribution of refugees now flooding border crossings throughout the EU. Some bloc members, including Hungary, vehemently oppose the quota system. Last week, Hungary put the finishing touches on a 13-foot-high fence on its border with Serbia, leaving thousands of desperate migrants in a no man’s land between the two countries. More than 10,000 traveled instead to Croatia, which has since reneged on offers to receive the migrants and asylum-seekers, claiming their country is completely full.”

Asked at the Berlin press conference Sunday why the United States couldn’t do more, Kerry didn’t elaborate.

We’re doing what we know we can manage immediately,” he said.

Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images News

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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