The White House Once Defended Itself Against Criticism It Wasn't Admitting Enough Syrian Refugees

PHOTO: White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Sept. 10, 2015.PlayAndrew Harnik/AP Photo
WATCH Syrian Refugee Issue Still Divisive

At the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the White House had to explain why it wasn’t admitting more people seeking safety from ISIS -- a far cry from the criticism it’s now battling that the resettlement program might not be secure enough.

Advocacy groups like the International Rescue Committee had long been calling for the administration to admit more than 10,000 Syrian refugees starting this year, as it announced it would do on Sept. 10.

IRC president and chief executive David Millband called the announcement "cold comfort to the victims of the Syrian conflict."

And even on the right, criticism of the resettlement program from the right was far more muted.

Back in early 2014, Sen. Ted Cruz, who is now calling for only Syrian Christians to be admitted into the U.S. without additional security protocols, was instead stressing the need to help all Syrian refugees, although a spokesman noted he did also repeatedly raise broad concerns about terrorist infiltration in their ranks.

“We have welcomed refugees -- the tired, huddled masses -- for centuries. That’s been the history of the United States. We should continue to do so,” he said on Fox News on Feb. 12, 2014. “We have to continue to be vigilant to make sure those coming are not affiliated with the terrorists, but we can do that.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie referenced tragic images of the body of a young Syrian boy washing up on the shores of Turkey when he said in September that the United States should do its fair share.

“I can't come up with an exact number, we have to sit with our allies and work together. … Let’s look at what the flow of the refugees are going to be and the United States should play their role in it along with the other countries,” he said.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham said it was in the national security interests of the U.S. to accept more refugees. "You have the refugee organizations that are overwhelmed,” he said, also in September.

Now, critics say the White House must further beef up security for the Syrian refugee resettlement process, even though just a few months ago the administration was pointing to the arduous security process in place as justification of its ability to accept only an additional 10,000 refugees over the next year.

The screening process for Syrian refugees is actually more rigorous than that for citizens of other countries, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Refugee Affairs Division Chief Barbara Strack. Many Syrian refugee applications are subject to an extra layer of fraud detection protocols for additional review and research, she said in October during Senate testimony.

Here’s what spokesman White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters around the days that increased number was announced.

Sept. 11, 2015

EARNEST: I also indicated yesterday that we would not take any short-cuts when it comes to our security. So there will be an effort to try to accelerate that process or move more people through that process, but it will not come at the expense of the robust security precautions that will remain in place.

The last thing is, what I acknowledged yesterday is that there is a bit of a backlog and so it may be that somebody who applies today, for example, may not be part of the ten thousand that would be admitted in the next fiscal year. But it certainly would show a stepped-up pace and it does give -- creates some additional slots, additional opportunities for those who are in that backlog to be admitted next year.

QUESTION: OK. Do you know -- so basically you're saying the 10,000 that you would be taking in in the next year are people who have already applied? There really aren't any slots open for new applications because those people -- it could be as long as two years before they are ...

EARNEST: Well there -- there surely are -- there are new slots for applications. It's not clear to me, however, that anybody would be able to make their way through this process before the end of next fiscal year if they're applying today, for example.

Sept. 10, 2015

QUESTION: How did you arrive at that number, and when you see Britain changing course, and saying, we're going to admit 20,000 now? The U.S. is a lot larger than Britain.

You know, how do you sort of make that comparison when you look at what Europe is doing, you look at what other countries are doing? Where does that number come from?

EARNEST: Well, what it reflects is a significant scaling up of the commitment on the part of the United States to accept more Syrian refugees into this country.

However -- and again, this is what our experts tell us, and this -- I also think this is what common sense tells us, that the solution here is to meet the most urgent, immediate need of Syrian refugees, is to make sure that we can provide basic medical care, basic shelter, basic food and water.

And even some other things, like internationally run schools in these refugee camps to try to provide for the basic needs of those Syrians that have been forced from their homes.

That's how we're going to meet the urgent need.

The other thing that's important for people to recognize, and I mentioned this earlier this week as well, the top concern -- or the top priority when evaluating these kinds of policy options is the safety and security of the United States and our citizens.

EARNEST: And I can tell you that refugees go through the most robust security process of anybody who's contemplating travel to the United States. Refugees have to be screened by the National Counter Terrorism Center, by the FBI Terrorist Screening Center. They go through databases that are maintained by DHS, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community.

There is biographical and biometric information that is collected about these individuals. They have to submit to in-person interviews to discuss their case.

And you know, that process typically takes 12 to 18 months. And the reason for that process is that the safety and security of the U.S. homeland comes first. That's another reason why the best way to address this urgent need is to try to ramp up our humanitarian assistance in the region.

Sept. 8, 2015

QUESTION: So the State Department has said, "it's about 1500 Syrians." Given that there are four million Syrian refugees, isn't a that a pathetically low number that the United States is willing to bring in?

EARNEST: Well John, I think that when you consider the scope of this crisis, it's important to understand the scope of U.S. response.

QUESTION: I understand that we've given a lot of money ... to, you know, alleviate the problem in the regions. But in terms of the number, historically the United States has opened its doors when we've seen a crisis like this happen and welcomed in refugees. And in this case it's been just 1,500 out of 4 million.

So I'm just wondering -- I understand that the president has to deal with limits that have been -- that he didn't set, they were proposed by law. But do you agree that, that is a -- kind of a shockingly low number given the extent of the crisis.

EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is that the State Department is going to take the lead inside the administration in reviewing the options that are available to the Obama Administration, for considering additional steps that we can take to try to provide more assistance in dealing with this significant and growing humanitarian crisis.