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U.S. to welcome 10,000 more Syrians. How are they picked?

Heeding international cries for the United States to do its part to help migrants, President Barack Obama has ordered the administration to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. over the next year.

It usually takes about 18-24 months to process a case from referral or application to arrival in the U.S., so can the 10,000 target be hit?

Yes, said a State Department official speaking on background to reporters on Friday, because the department already has more than 10,000 applications in hand through its $1.1 billion resettlement program.

What process do the applicants go through?

  • Refugees apply for resettlement, mostly through the U.N. refugee agency known as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR has stepped up its referrals to the United States since 2014 for the most vulnerable candidates, including female-headed households, victims of torture, LGBT refugees, religious minorities and those who need medical care. The vast majority of Syrian referrals come from five countries: Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.
  • UNHCR sets aside the majority of cases it believes would run into problems with security in the U.S. under the Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds guidelines, and it instead tries resettling the refugees in other countries, the official said.
  • There are other “direct application” programs for special cases including U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, Iranian religious minorities, former Soviet Union religious minorities, Cubans and Central American minors with a legal parent in the U.S.
  • The refugees undergo an in-person interview by Department of Homeland officials for security purposes and a medical exam by the Department of Health and Human Services to see if they have tuberculosis. If they do, their application is suspended until they undergo treatment.
  • Once accepted, the refugees travel to the U.S. is arranged by the International Organization for Migration. The refugees sign a form saying they will repay the travel loan.
  • The refugees are sent to about 180 communities in the United States that have resettlement programs, including Atlanta, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. The department doesn’t send refugees to cities such as San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., because the rent is generally too expensive, said the official. The newcomers can choose to move to other cities if they don’t like where they’ve been placed.

Resettlement is not the first solution in a conflict, and UNHCR typically doesn’t refer refugees for resettlement for the first five years of a crisis, said the State Department official. The hope is they’ll return home or shelter in the region until they can return. Most refugees who have resettled in the U.S. come from long-standing conflicts, such as those in Somalia and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

But UNHCR recognized many Syrians wouldn’t be able to return home any time soon, so it started referring them sooner, the official added.

We’ll have more on the push to admit additional Syrians on Friday’s PBS NewsHour.