A sign welcomes Syrian refugees during a rally in Arizona. The governor has joined others in calling for a halt to placements of Syrian refugees there, following the Paris terrorist attacks.

A sign welcomes Syrian refugees during a rally in Arizona. The governor has joined others in calling for a halt to placements of Syrian refugees there, following the Paris terrorist attacks. Ross D. Franklin/AP

Federal Agencies 'Adapt,' 'Stretch' to Accommodate More Syrian Refugees

Feds look for ways to resettle far more refugees in fiscal 2016 as Congress tries to halt the program.

As the House on Thursday voted to create a more stringent screening process for refugees resettling in the United States, federal agencies said they are “adapting,” “flexing,” and shifting resources around to bring in vastly more Syrians in fiscal 2016.

The refugee program has come under significant scrutiny since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, but the Obama administration has been steadfast in defending the screening process as sufficiently secure. Several federal agencies are involved in the resettling program, including the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Health and Human Services, as well as the intelligence community.

After the United Nations recommends a Syrian for resettling in the United States, DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services sends a mobile unit -- largely in Turkey and Jordan -- to conduct in-person interviews and collect biometric data like fingerprints. The information gathered is checked against FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence databases. Once the screening process -- which generally takes 18-24 months on average for all refugees -- is completed, State and HHS work with states and local organizations to settle the individuals.

After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 and through fiscal 2014, this process has admitted slightly more than 2,000 of the country’s refugees into the United States. In fiscal 2016, however -- which began in October -- President Obama has promised to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. While politicians in Congress and across the country have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom and capacity to handle the increased load, the administration has vowed to process the refugees in a safe and secure manner.

“It will require us adapting and flexing,” according to one senior administration official, “but I think it’s well within our capacity given the large numbers of travelers and other kinds of screening and vetting that we do that’s significantly larger than what we’re talking about here.”

The official added it would not be easy, but the work would get done.

“We can do that, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but we can do it,” the official said. “I’m confident of it.”

Another senior administration official said some agencies will have to move things around to make things work in the immediate term.

“A big part of how we are scaling up in the near term is borrowing from other parts of” one of the agencies involved in the screening process, the official said, adding it is “seeking volunteers” to fill gaps and augment staff to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees. The agency is also pulling people from its other offices who are “well trained and who will receive an increment of additional training” to pitch in.

Asked this week how State will accommodate the jump in Syrian refugees needing resettling this fiscal year, deputy spokesman Mark Toner was light on details.

“All I know is that we’re standing behind the fact that we can do that at the same time as we maintain this stringent security process to admit them,” Toner said.

A spokesperson from HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provides refugees with medical screenings, employment services and other assistance, said it is relying on more funding -- Obama asked Congress for a $69 million spending increase for ORR -- to handle the increased workload.

While the administration has vowed to move forward with the refugee program -- it plans to bring in a total of 85,000 refugees by September -- the House-backed bill would essentially halt the entire operation by requiring new guarantees by DHS and other agencies that no refugees pose security risks. One provision in the bill would require the DHS inspector general to audit 20 percent of refugee screening. A spokesman in the IG’s office said it was still reviewing the bill to determine how much of an additional lift the requirement would create.

The White House has already threatened to veto the legislation, which will now head to the Senate, though the initial vote in the lower chamber carried enough support to override the president’s disapproval.

The legislation would “introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements” on the screening process that would “hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” the White House said. “The current screening process involves multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies,” the administration said, “all aimed at ensuring that those admitted do not pose a threat to our country.”

The White House called the certification requirement in the bill “untenable” and said it would “provide no meaningful additional security” as the “substantive result sought through this draft legislation is already embedded into the program.”

Opponents of the program took issue with that claim, with Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee issuing a report this week to say federal agencies are already “stretched extremely thin.” The committee also said agencies have made it known they are concerned about the increased workload.

“The committee has been made aware that officials in multiple departments and agencies are concerned about accelerating Syrian refugee admissions and fear that the lack of caution will result in a range of new terrorism cases domestically,” the lawmakers wrote.

While noting agencies are being asked to do more with limited resources, the report also said the federal entities should “ramp up efforts” to work with European and Middle Eastern partners to share information and boost counterterrorism efforts. Ultimately, they recommended immediately blocking all Syrian refugees from entering the country.

Even if Congress is unsuccessful in suspending the Syrian refugee program in the near-term, it will have several opportunities moving forward through the spending process. With current funding set to expire Dec. 11, lawmakers still must approve appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year. Dozens of Republicans have asked appropriators to defund refugee efforts. And while federal agencies are confident they can make the necessary adjustments and “stretch” employees to bring in more refugees this fiscal year, administration officials acknowledged they will need Congress’ help going forward.

An official said in fiscal 2017 and beyond, agencies will need turn to “hiring of staff that we need to be able to support a larger refugee program.”

“Bringing more refugees,” the official said, “is absolutely dependent on having the resources to run the program. And as it expands further, this will be dependent on continued support from Congress, from the appropriations committees especially, to fund the program.”