The United States has pledged to take 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016 — five times the number the country has resettled since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began.
So needless to say, there are questions of whether the US will actually be able to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
But to get a sense of how many refugees this actually is, it's helpful to look at how many refugees the US admitted in the past. And when you do that, you start to see that in historical context, 10,000 Syrian refugees isn't a very big influx at all.
The US used to admit way more refugees
The Refugee Processing Center at the State Department publishes information on how many refugees have arrived in the US, so I took the past 40 years of data to make the chart above.
And what you see is 3.25 million refugees arriving in the United States since 1975.
The first thing you probably notice is that the US used to admit more refugees in the past. The two big spikes in the past 40 years came from Indochinese refugees after the Vietnam War and Soviet Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The other thing you might notice is the big dip after 9/11. In fiscal year 2001, the US accepted nearly 70,000 refugees. The next year, that number plummeted to 27,000.
The US now admits more refugees from the Near East and South Asia than any other region
Refugees from the Near East and South Asia now outnumber refugees from any other region, but this is a relatively new thing.
In the past 10 years, refugees from the Near East and South Asia (where Syria is located) have arrived at a much faster pace than they used to. The United States only allowed a tiny number of refugees from that region before 2008.
Refugee spikes almost always correlate with geopolitical tumult
The United States has a history of accepting refugees, and the significant spikes almost always signify some geopolitical event that caused people to flee their home country. It’s not hard to see that on the chart.
- The spike of Asian refugees in 1975 is due to the Indochinese who assisted the US during the Vietnam War. After the US pulled out of Vietnam, the government resettled 140,000 refugees in eight months under the ad hoc Indochina Refugee Program.
- The next spike you see is the Refugee Act of 1980, which adopted the United Nations' definition of a refugee and created a more systematic process for responding to these geopolitical emergencies. This allowed another wave of Indochinese refugees, as well as some Soviet Jews.
- But the largest waves of Soviet Jews came after 1989. The Lautenberg Amendment admitted Jews from the former Soviet Union without them having to prove specific persecution. There was also a persecuted Christian population that resettled in the US. In all, an estimated 380,000 refugees arrived from the former Soviet Union.
- Most recently the United States resettled a wave of Yugoslavians, who fled during their civil war in the mid- to late 1990s.
The private sector helped thousands of Cubans and Soviet Jews get into the country
Under the Private Sector Initiative, about 8,000 Cubans have arrived in the US as refugees, with their processing, travel, medical care, and resettlement costs paid for by private parties.
And in 1990, a pilot program by the Council of Jewish Federations and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society financed the resettlement of 8,000 Soviet Jews.
It started in World War II
If the chart extended back to the 1940s, we’d see President Franklin D. Roosevelt facilitating the rescue of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust; then we’d see Congress enact the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed 200,000 displaced Europeans into the country. The act was extended two more years, eventually admitting 415,000 people by the end of 1952.
Still, the number of Syrian refugees the US has accepted is tiny
From 2011 to 2014, the US barely admitted 200 refugees a year from Syria. Last month, the US admitted another 187. The Obama administration’s goal of 10,000 this fiscal year seems far away — and even that number is small, compared with the huge numbers of refugees the US accepted after the Vietnam War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and even during the Yugoslavian civil war.
As my colleague Dara Lind writes, the US is so paranoid about Syrian refugees that it’s barely letting in any of them. All immigrants can’t come to the US if they’ve been affiliated with a terrorist group. But for Syrians, the burden of proof is reversed: They have to prove they aren’t affiliated with any terrorist group.