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Washington — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters wants the Obama administration to triple the number of refugees from war-ravaged Syria that it will accept next year and to give higher priority to resettling persecuted minorities from both Syria and Iraq in the United States.

The Bloomfield Township Democrat, who visited the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan as part of a five-nation Middle East tour in September, said the refugees’ plight is the “major humanitarian crisis that’s occurring in the world today” and that the United States needs to do more.

“The folks there in the camp are surviving on 50 cents a day for food with limited resources, in trailers, in the middle of the desert,” Peters said in a Wednesday interview.

“Some had been there over three years. This isn’t a temporary situation. This is a long-term situation, and people are feeling they simply have no hope whatsoever.”

In a letter to President Barack Obama sent Wednesday, the freshman senator said the United States should be prepared to take 30,000 Syrians and persecuted minorities next year and as many as 100,000 refugees in the following years.

“An undertaking at this level will demonstrate the United States’ continued commitment to our proud history of welcoming refugees of special humanitarian concern,” Peters wrote. “I stand ready to work with you to provide additional funding or authorizations required.”

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said she shares Peters’ compassion for assisting the Syrian refugees but urges caution. She said officials lack “credible intelligence” on many of those presenting themselves for admission as refugees, and “many” could be connected to “any one of the many terrorist groups operating in the region.”

“Syria is home to the largest convergence of Islamist terror organizations, many of whom are committed to carrying out attacks against the U.S. and its allies,” said Miller, vice chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“When it comes to accepting refugees from Syria, it is imperative that the U.S. impose the highest level of scrutiny and security to protect our citizens from terrorist looking to exploit our hospitality.”

The U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security already put refugees through a rigorous, multi-layered security screening process, which is preceded by screening by the United Nations.

“We already screen refugees no matter where they’re coming from around the world,” Peters said. “We have to maintain strong checks. I’m all about that. This is about folks who can be legitimately characterized as a refugee, and we have a process in place to do that.”

It is unclear what impact Peters’ request would have on how many more refugees are resettled in Michigan. Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday his administration is in talks with federal officials about resettling refugees from Syria in Michigan.

Michigan accepts an average of 4,200 refugees each year, according to Snyder’s office.

Peters said Michigan has always welcomed immigrants, and the large Middle Eastern community in Detroit would provide unique support for refugees. The senator has been talking to groups in the state about what Michigan can do to help, a spokeswoman said.

This month, the Obama administration committed to accepting at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees during the next year. The United States will welcome 85,000 refugees from around the world in 2016, up from 70,000, and the ceiling would rise to 100,000 in 2017.

Peters is worried the administration’s goals are insufficient given the number of refugees from Syria referred to the United States by the United Nations refugee agency. It continues to refer up to 1,000 Syrians a month to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program — “a number that shows no signs of slowing down given the current exodus of refugees from the region,” the senator added.

U.S. allies in Europe have struggled to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, many of whom are fleeing regions seized by Islamic State militants.

Peters expressed particular concern for minority groups in the Middle East that have been targeted for persecution by the Islamic State, including Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen and Kurds.

The United States is on track to accept about 1,500 Syrians this year, according to the White House. An estimated 11.6 million people have been displaced from their homes during the brutal 4 1/2-year civil war in Syria.

Snyder said his office is having a “good discussion” with federal officials to understand their process.

“What we want to do is to make sure if there’s an opportunity to help, we can be proactive on this,” Snyder said Tuesday.

Resettlement inside America is influenced by factors including whether a refugee has relatives living in the United States and the ability of resettlement agencies in local communities to handle individual or special cases, and languages spoken.

About 4,000 refugees from embattled countries in the Middle East and Africa resettled in Michigan last year, according to data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Advocates for refugees say it can take up to two years for background checks for applicants to be processed. The Detroit News reported Sept. 21 on the story of a Syrian family that waited 19 months to get clearance to leave Turkey and resettle in Detroit.

Miller has sponsored a bill that would require approval by both the House and Senate before refugees are admitted to the country. It would also direct the president to give higher priority to resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq who have been persecuted as members of a religious minority.

Elsewhere in the region, Rep. Debbie Dingell has urged the Obama adminstration to use “all available authorities” to evacuate U.S. citizens from war-torn Yemen, where many have been stranded.

Dingell’s language was included in the final version of the 2016 defense budget bill recently approved by a congressional conference committee.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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