As the issue of Syrian refugees escalates into national debate, the United States -- as a practical matter -- is accepting far fewer than the 10,000 a year President Obama envisioned, U.S. government figures show.
It is estimated thousands of recently arrived Syrians are seeking asylum, but few of them came to the United States as actual refugees. During the entire fiscal year 2014, the U.S. received only 132 Syrian refugees, 32 of them in California, according to the annual spreadsheet report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
This compares to 19,651 refugees from Iraq, and a total of 69.986 for refugees from all nations.
In Anaheim, the nonprofit Access California Services provides assistance to migrants, including many from the Middle East. Since Syria devolved into civil war four years ago, and the terror group Islamic State gained a foothold there, the agency has assisted some 800 of those leaving Syria, but only three of them were refugees, said Suhail Mulla, Associate Director.
Turkey, Greece, and some European nations have been flooded with Syrian refugees, many risking their lives departing Asia Minor for Europe in crowded boats. For a variety of factors, including the hurdle of crossing the Atlantic, and a lengthy background check process required by Homeland Security, far fewer are reaching the U.S.
Since the wave of deadly terror attacks Friday in Paris -- linked to operatives of Islamic State -- there has been a growing backlash to President Obama's commitment to receiving and resettling
In recent days, a growing number of U.S. governors -- now more than half -- have issued statements threatening to defy the U.S. program.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, is calling for a vote in Congress to "pause" Syrian refugee resettlement.
"We cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion," Ryan said at a news conference Tuesday. "This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry."
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown Monday expressed support for welcoming refugees, so long as there is adequate vetting. Advocates for the migrants say those fleeing Syria are victims in need of humanitarian aid.
"They are not the perpetrators of these acts, but the victims," said Mulla, who directs the mental health program at Access California Services. He said many of those arriving from Syria suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions related to the horrors they have
witnessed and endured.
The White House has been reaching out to governors and lawmakers in an attempt to bolster support for the refugee program, stressing the intensive background checking process to detect agents of terror posing as refugees in an attempt to enter the U.S.
"We have a far more stringent process than the Europeans," said Jen Pasaki, White House Communications Director, in an interview with the NBC television stations. "It can take months, if not longer, because of how thorough it is."
Pasaki made a point of mentioning two of the famous figures who came to this country as refugees: former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who fled the former Czechoslovakia,
and Google co-founder Sergei Brin, who left the former Soviet Union.
"Right now, we're going to continue to have conversations with anyone who's concerned -- elected officials around the country -- to see if we can assess those," said Pasaki. "But we shouldn't forget that we are a nation of immigrants, we're a nation full of incredible refugees, and we need to continue letting our doors open."
In many cases, those reaching California from Syria had visas for their travel, and are now seeking asylum to be able to stay after the visa expires, said Nahla Kayali, founder and executive director of Access California Services. In some cases, migrants have entered North America in Canada or
Mexico, then crossed over the border, sometimes bypassing legal entry, Kayali said.
Getting out of Syria can be a challenge even for who possess a U.S. passport because they had obtained U.S. citizenship during a previous stay.
One family in the northern city of Aleppo made use of a friend's car and driver, who took them to an isolated stretch of the border to cross into Turkey, recalled Nidal Hajomar, who settled in Anaheim, where he opened a restaurant he named Aleppo's Kitchen.
Hajomar advocates not only for continued assistance for refugees, but for the U.S. to take a greater role in bringing stability to Syria.
"We love the U.S., we love the peace, we want the U.S. to help us," Hajomar said.