WASHINGTON – Minnesota's congressional Democrats are urging President Obama to do more to help Syrians — including allowing more of those seeking refuge into the United States — as millions flee their war-ravaged country.
Minnesota's Republicans on Capitol Hill are expressing more caution, and demanding assurances that those allowed into the country are thoroughly vetted and will not threaten the nation's security. They also blame Obama for not intervening in the civil war earlier.
The growing and complex turmoil in Syria is provoking an unusually partisan response in Washington — something that used to be rare in foreign policy, particularly in a humanitarian crisis. Congressional leaders face a delicate political balance in providing refuge to those fleeing Syria, while at the same time not making it easier for terrorist cells to enter the United States.
White House officials say they are preparing to boost the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the country from 1,500 this year to at least 10,000 next year. That would bring the total number of refugees admitted into the United States from around the world to 75,000.
U.S. officials also say this country will continue to be the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to other countries and organizations dealing with the crush of Syrians needing aid.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Democratic Reps. Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison say the administration must do more.
Klobuchar, who has been writing letters to the White House since May on the issue, compared the Syrian crisis to the Hmong who sought asylum in the 1970s and 1980s. A large portion of them landed in Minnesota after the U.S. granted permission for more than 50,000 to come to the country. Klobuchar and Franken have urged the White House to accept 65,000 new Syrians seeking asylum in the next year.
"I'm not advocating the U.S. be in the lead here," Klobuchar said this week. "But these numbers are not completely out of sync with what we've done before."
Nolan and Ellison have been pushing for even more — between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees to be relocated to the United States by the end of 2016.
"Look, someone has to do something. Someone has to help these people," Ellison said. "Our response is inadequate, we should be doing way more."
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz didn't want to commit to a number but said the tragedy "tears at your heart."
"It's all going to depend on those questions of capacity. We have to figure out how are we going to settle all these people," he said. "I do know each of these refugees needs to be settled. … It doesn't take a vast amount of imagination that it is totally hell on Earth there."
Europe and some Middle Eastern countries are bearing a far greater burden than the United States, mostly due to their proximity to the war zone. Germany has estimated 800,000 asylum-seekers will arrive this year. Great Britain has committed to resettling 20,000 over the next few years. More than 1 million Syrians are now living in Lebanon.
Some of the newly arriving Syrians could make their way to Minnesota. The state houses some of the largest refugee populations in the United States and is a top resettlement state for asylum-seekers from Somalia, Bhutan and Burma.
Ramia Aljasem and Mohamad Al Obeid and their five children, who arrived in Rochester in April, are the only Syrian refugees resettled in Minnesota since 2011.
Minnesota's delegation is increasingly under public pressure to act.
"I just don't think it's just a Syrian problem," said Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, which helps refugees settle here.
Suzan Boulad, a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota and a Syrian-American, said she has an aunt still in Syria, and family who fled to Jordan and Germany.
Boulad, who recently confronted Ellison, Klobuchar and Franken on the issue at a Labor Day picnic, said she feels like she is "navigating two lives," that of a student in Minnesota while deeply concerned about the fate of those back home.
Republican U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer say they are concerned about Obama's leadership on the issue.
"We're not helping the human condition," Paulsen said. "That's part of what our leadership should be about."
Paulsen said he is not troubled by the possibility of bringing more Syrians to the country. "On the face of it, the number 10,000 is a small number in comparison to 11 million people displaced," he said.
Emmer said he's concerned that the additional people should be thoroughly screened so that Americans remain safe.
"How are we identifying these people? You say to us that the requirements are among the strictest, I don't know that. I want to know what the requirements are," Emmer said. "I think you've got to make sure our national security is the primary concern."
U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican, blamed Obama for the crisis.
"The mass exodus of refugees is the result of a Syria that is a completely failed state and the Obama administration continues to contribute to the turmoil in the region by leading from behind," he said in a statement.