Maryland's senators are seeking ways the U.S. government can do more to aid Syrian refugees, joining other officials in the search for a balance between the humanitarian urge to help those who are suffering and the security concerns of admitting masses of people to the United States from a region that has been cracked apart by terrorism.
Sen. Ben Cardin called this week for more funding to process refugee applications, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has asked homeland security officials how better technology could speed the vetting process.
The civil war in Syria has driven about 4 million people from the country. Most have landed in neighboring countries, but hundreds of thousands have made it to Europe.
President Barack Obama has directed his administration to admit at least 10,000 Syrians in the fiscal year that began this month.
But vetting refugees for resettlement in the United States is a complicated job that involves diplomats, intelligence analysts and traveling squads of immigration officials to weed out potentially dangerous people. It can take up to two years to approve an application, according to the State Department.
About 7,000 refugees from around the world were resettled in Maryland from October 2008 through September 2013, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Baltimore office of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee had found homes for 26 Syrians this year through mid-September.
Cardin urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to boost funding for the agencies involved.
"We must support funding to significantly increase the number of refugees screened and admitted into the United States," Cardin and other Democrats wrote in a letter to the panel's leaders.
"We welcomed approximately 200,000 refugees during the Balkan Wars, 700,000 refugees from Cuba, and more than 700,000 refugees from Vietnam," they wrote. "Compared with these historic numbers, we can do better than 10,000 slots for Syrian families."
Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, introduced a bill that would provide $1 billion more to respond to the refugee crisis — enough, they estimated, to process up to 100,000 applications.
The process of vetting a refugee begins in most cases with a United Nations referral. Since 2014, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has been sending 500 to 1,000 candidates a month to U.S. officials, according to the State Department.
The applicants are then interviewed by an agent of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.
In a letter circulated Tuesday, Mikulski and other Senate Democrats asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson whether using video calls to interview refugees might streamline the process of resettling people uprooted by violence and persecution.
"Refugee interviews conducted via videoconferencing, where needed, would appear to provide a commonsense approach to enable DHS to conduct interviews even in those countries where security concerns" make it difficult for immigration workers to travel, the senators wrote.
But there could be legal barriers to adopting video calls. Federal regulations state that a refugee must appear "in person before an immigration officer for inquiry under oath" early the application process.
Some advocates for immigrants say that rule could be interpreted to allow remote interviews.
Candidates move on to a security screening, and background checks lengthen the process.
Matthew D. Emrich, a security official at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, told a Senate panel that Syrian refugees are being subjected to greater-than-usual scrutiny with intelligence agencies weighing in on the cases.
A State Department official told reporters last month that agencies generally coordinate effectively in sharing information, but a delay in vetting one person can slow the process for their relatives.
The process is also colored by concerns that the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could try to sneak operatives posing as refugees into the United States.
At a recent hearing, Sen. Jeff Sessions questioned whether immigration officials know enough about individual candidates to determine who might pose a national security risk.
"We have little or no information about who the people are, no background information, no ability to determine whether they are radicalized now or might become radicalized after their arrival in the United States," the Alabama Republican said.