Obama’s Backdoor Refugee Plan

U.N., Obama admin quietly explore ways to allow up to 200,000 Syrians into U.S.

With President Obama’s plan to ramp up admission of refugees mired in controversy, administration officials quietly are looking for ways to take in more Syrians without calling them refugees, according to an expert on asylum policy.

Following a March conference called by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, U.S. officials pledged support for the goal of alleviating the suffering caused by a civil war that has driven millions of Syrians from their homes.

“The United States joins UNHCR in calling for new ways nations, civil society, the private sector, and individuals can together address the global refugee challenge,” the U.S. Department of State said in a news release.

Beth Ferris, a Georgetown University professor and humanitarian refugee policy adviser to the United Nations secretary-general, said at a panel discussion in February that there are “alternative safe pathways” for fleeing Syrians. Ideas include giving scholarships and extending the ability of Syrian-Americans to sponsor relatives beyond their immediate family members to include aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

At a Brookings Institution conference, she suggested that as many as 200,000 refugees could pour in. “Maybe it’s hard for the U.S. to go from 2,000 to 200,000 refugees resettled in a year, but maybe there are ways we can ask our universities to offer scholarships to Syrian students.

“There may be ways that we could encourage Syrians to come to the U.S. without going through this laborious, time-consuming process of refugee resettlement,” she said.

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It is an approach wholeheartedly endorsed by the U.N., which estimates that one out of every 10 Syrians will need to be resettled over the next three years.

“Resettlement is not the only aim,” High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards said in a statement in March. “Other such pathways include humanitarian transfer or visas, private sponsorship, medical evacuation, family reunion, academic scholarship, and apprenticeships or labour schemes.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said at the conference that creative solutions are needed.

“Resettlement needs vastly outstrip the places that have been made available so far,” Grandi said.

So far, the United States has resettled about 3,000 of the 10,000 refugees that President Obama has promised to take in by the end of the fiscal year in September.

Nayla Rush, a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, said calls for “alternative safe pathways” raise security questions. Although the screening process for refugees has been criticized as inadequate, it is far more stringent than many other ways by which Syrians might enter the country, she said.

“These numbers, we don’t know what they amount to,” she said. “We don’t know who they are. We don’t know how they will be screened … If you don’t have a spotlight on them, then I’m guessing it’s not going to be as strenuous.”

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It is unclear whether Obama has the authority to employ all of these alternative pathways. Jon Feere, a legal policy analysts for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the outcome this summer of a Supreme Court case involving Obama’s program to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation could provide clarity.

“That’s when we’ll have a better idea of how much sway Congress has over immigration,” he said.

But Feere added that it is a good bet that the administration will “assume as much power as it needs in order to get done whatever it wants to do.”

Rush predicted a rhetorical shift away from “refugee” to “pathway” in future administration discussions about the issue.

“I have a feeling that alternative pathways is the new talking point,” she said.

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