STATE DEPARTMENT —
Seven percent of all screened Syrian refugees seeking to resettle in the United States this year have been denied approval, and 13 percent of the cases have been put on hold, government officials said Friday.
The screening process, which has faced domestic criticism, is “rigorous and exhaustive,” said Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
Highly trained officers conduct the screening to ensure that applicants aren't terrorists, said León Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Hundreds [from Syria] have been denied,” Rodriguez told reporters in a conference call along with Richard and Robert Carey, director of refugee resettlement for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Goal within reach
The United States is on track to meet President Barack Obama’s goal of allowing in 10,000 refugees from Syria for the fiscal year ending in September, the officials said.
“We may exceed 10,000, and for next year we will continue to welcome large numbers of Syrians, but it’s too soon to have a target figure established,” Richard said.
Nearly 80 percent of the Syrians accepted this year by the United States are women and children, officials said.
More than 10 percent of the refugees from Syria have headed to Michigan, which has a significant Arabic-speaking population, especially in Dearborn, the state’s eighth-largest city.
The U.S. Republican Party nominee for president, Donald Trump, has advocated halting immigration from Syria and has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country. Governors of more than 30 U.S. states have tried to block such refugees from settling in their states, despite having no authority to do so, according to legal experts.
FILE - People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees in Olympia, Washington, Nov. 20, 2015.
More than 99 percent of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States this year are Muslims, according to the U.S. State Department, which in February moved to cut the processing time in Jordan to screen refugees to three months from a typical 18 to 24 months.
"What we know is that more resources have been put toward the processing of folks who have been pending," Stacie Blake, spokeswoman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told VOA. "More resources obviously meant that more folks were able to move through the system."
Kerry, Lavrov confer
Syria was a topic of a telephone call Friday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to officials in Moscow. The State Department confirmed the call had taken place but said it had no details on the content of the conversation.
Obama, following a visit to the Pentagon on Thursday, criticized Russia’s policy in Syria, saying he doubted President Vladimir Putin could be trusted to cooperate on ending the five-year civil war.
The United States is prepared to work with the Russians to try to reduce the violence in Syria and cooperate in the battle against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. “But Russia has failed to take the necessary steps,” Obama said. “Given the deteriorating situation, it is time for Russia to show it is serious about pursuing these objectives.”
FILE - Syrian women wait in line to receive winter aid as U.N. General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft visits Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, Jan. 20, 2016.
The civil war in Syria has displaced 5 million people. At the start of the war, in 2011, the United States was accepting only a handful of the refugees.
The U.N. General Assembly is to hold a conference next month to address the Syrian refugee and migration crisis.
“The purpose of the summit is to recruit other countries to join with us and make a real difference in the world’s contribution toward helping refugees,” Richard said.
VOA's Victoria Macchi and Esha Sarai contributed to this report.