U.S. to Boost Number of Refugees it Will Admit in 2017

Image: Children play at the yard of an abandoned school used by volunteers for hosting families of refugeees
Children play at the yard of an abandoned school used by volunteers for hosting families of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in Athens on June 27.ARIS MESSINIS / AFP - Getty Images

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By Abigail Williams, Ron Allen and Corky Siemaszko

The Obama administration is pressing ahead with plans to boost the number of refugees it will allow into the U.S. as a national debate rages over immigration and security.

The increase to 110,000 represents a nearly 30 percent increase over the current fiscal year. It is also a more than 57 percent jump since 2015 "and is consistent with our belief that all countries should do more to help the world's most vulnerable people," a State Department official told NBC News.

Children play at the yard of an abandoned school used by volunteers for hosting families of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in Athens on June 27.ARIS MESSINIS / AFP - Getty Images

Of the 110,000 the U.S. intends to begin admitting at least 40,000 are from the Near East and South Asia, a White House senior administration official said. And most of those are likely to be people escaping the brutal Syrian civil war, even as many GOP lawmakers and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sound the alarm about terrorists in the midst of the refugees.

CNN first reported the administration's new push on Wednesday morning.

Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials, briefed members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees during a closed briefing on Tuesday, officials.

"As the Secretary has said, this is who we are; this is America at its best," the State Department official said.

Trump and many in his party have fomented fears that there could be Islamic terrorists in their midst — and who have called for a total ban on Syrian refugees.

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Last year, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate tried to pass legislation, sponsored by two GOP presidential candidates, to block or curtail benefits for Syrian refugees seeking to enter the U.S. The measures ultimately failed.

The Republican-controlled House last year easily passed tough new screening procedures aimed at stopping Syrian refugees from entering the country — measures President Obama threatened to veto and which failed in the Senate this year on a procedural motion.

A number of Republican governors also opposed the original plan to accept the influx of refugees into their states. A NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll conducted in November found that 56 percent of Americans disapproved of letting more migrants fleeing violence in Syria and other nations into the U.S., while 41 percent approve.

Views on the topic divide sharply on partisan lines.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton backs accepting more refugees from Syria.

The new arrivals under the revised plan will undergo “rigorous screening” before they are allowed in the country, the administration official insisted in an interview with NBC News.

“We are confident we can do the right thing,” the official said, while “upholding our core values as Americans.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, slammed the Obama administration, saying it “continues to tune out the American people’s concerns on this issue.”

“We must remain compassionate toward refugees but we also need to make sure that we use commonsense,” Goodlatte said in a statement after the meeting with Kerry. “Unfortunately, President Obama unilaterally increases the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year and gives little thought as to how it will impact local communities.”

Goodlatte called on Congress to pass the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act which “set the annual refugee resettlement ceiling so that the People’s duly elected representatives in Congress, not the President, decide what the number should be.”

“It also empowers state and local governments to decide whether or not refugee resettlement is best for their communities,” his statement read.

In the last fiscal year, the U.S. took in 85,000 refugees and 10,000 of those were Syrians. The Syrians were almost all Sunni Muslims, according to federal Refugee Processing Center statistics.

This year, the administration has also set goals to take in 35,000 refugees from Africa, 12,000 from East Asia, 5,000 from Latin America or the Caribbean, 4,000 from Europe, and 14,000 from elsewhere.

While the number of Syrians coming to the U.S. is on the rise, overall it is a drop in the bucket.

More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country but just one-fifth of 1 percent has been resettled in the U.S., according to the State Department.

Almost half of them are 14 and under, the feds said. And 62 percent are under age 20.

Their top two destinations are Michigan, which has long been a destination for Syrian immigrants, and California.