President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered his administration to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in the United States next year, amid international pressure to act as heartbreaking images emerge of sometimes-deadly attempts to escape to Europe.
California is the top resettlement destination, but some likely will come to centers in the Baltimore area, where refugees will be provided with furnished apartments, classes in English and American culture and help finding work.
The International Rescue Committee office in Highlandtown, which has helped to resettle 26 Syrian refugees this year, anticipates receiving many more. The agency helps to resettle about 800 refugees each year, including large numbers in recent years from Burma, Iraq, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
David Miliband, the IRC's chief executive officer, called the White House announcement Thursday "wholly inadequate" and "cold comfort" to victims of the Syrian civil war.
"With 4 million living in limbo and tens of thousands making desperate choices to reach safety, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to lead and is fully equipped to respond in a far more robust way," he said.
The advocacy group said the increase amounts to only 2,000 more refugees than were planned to be admitted in 2016.
"They could be us," said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC in Baltimore. "We need to recognize their humanity and think, 'What would we do in their place and how would we want to be treated?'"
Foreign nationals who are recognized as refugees are eligible for some short-term government assistance, including limited cash payments, but they are urged to find work quickly so they can support themselves — and most of them do, Chandrasekar said.
"They have dreams and ambitions like us," he said.
The IRC's Baltimore Resettlement Center is having its busiest month ever, helping 130 refugees, largely from Asia and Africa, find homes and jobs in the region. The IRC also works with about 200 people each year who are already seeking political asylum because they are afraid or unable to return to their own countries.
The United States has taken in about 1,500 Syrians, a number some rights advocates say is too small. The country has spent more than $4.1 billion since 2012 on what the administration calls the Syria Humanitarian Response, supporting food programs and refugee operations in Jordan and Lebanon.
Maryland received about 7,000 refugees from around the world from October 2008 through September 2013, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. That ranked 21st among states in absolute numbers, but 15th per capita.
The United Nations oversees the refugee resettlement process. Refugees are sent to other countries only if they can prove it is unsafe to return to their homelands, and if it's not possible for them to settle in the country to which they fled.
U.S. agencies, despite repeated plans announced in the last two years to increase resettlements, have struggled to clear refugees through a security vetting process that takes 18 to 24 months. And despite growing public sympathy for the displaced, security concerns have many lawmakers leery of bringing in more Middle Eastern refugees.
Sen. Charles Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the program.
Before "opening the floodgates," the Iowa Republican said, the administration "must prove to the American people that it will take the necessary precautions to ensure that national security is a top priority."
For Syrians, few options remain in the Middle East. In Lebanon, 1.5 million Syrian refugees account for about one in four people in that country. Another 1.9 million have fled to Turkey, with large numbers of others in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
In Syria, Chandrasekar said, violence has displaced 11 million people from one part of the country and forced to move to another.
Refugee Council USA, a national coalition of refugee advocate groups that include the IRC, wrote to Obama this week recommending that the country admit 100,000.
The council cited the resettling of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the wars in Southeast Asia and said the ceiling for refugee admissions should be higher than the current 70,000. It praised the country's humanitarian funding so far and requested that the country pledge more and encourage others to do so as well.
"It is abundantly clear that the Syrian crisis is nowhere close to ending," the council wrote, "and even when it does, the needs of those displaced by the crisis will take years, if not generations, to resolve."
Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the second-largest refugee resettlement agency in the country, is also one of the 20 groups on the council. Spokeswoman Miji Bell said the organization was encouraged by the White House announcement.
"We're certainly pleased to hear that," she said, "but we're hoping the administration will do far more than that as well."
By taking a larger share of the refugees, Bell said, the United States could help ease pressure on countries who are hosting far more and reduce the incentive for those still in Syria to attempt the dangerous journey to Europe by sea.
"The main issue that we're seeing now is these persons are really seeking safety and protection," she said. "It's not safe now for them to remain in their own countries, which is why they're fleeing in such large numbers."
The United States, a country born of immigrants and refugees, has a "humanitarian duty" to help, Bell said.
"We've always been a country of welcome," she said. "The Statue of Liberty says that."