As Europe handles waves of Syrian refugees, US is slow to help

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As Europe grapples with a flood of refugees from the Syrian war and the pope urges Catholics to help them, the U.S. government may lack the political appetite to offer American soil as a safe haven to more than the current trickle of Syrians.

Refugee and immigrant groups had urged the United States to admit more Syrian refugees long before the crisis erupted this summer in Europe.

Some hoped global outrage over images of a drowned Syrian toddler in Turkey last week, and Pope Francis' call on Sunday for European parishes to take in refugees - coming just two weeks before a trip to the United States - might help prod the United States into action.

"The U.S. could and should be doing more. The silence of the White House on this is unacceptable," said Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission.

See haunting photos of refugees leaving their homes:

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NTP: haunting images of people fleeing their homelands
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As Europe handles waves of Syrian refugees, US is slow to help
FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2015 file photo, a woman rescued with other migrants off the Libyan coast peers through a gate on the Norwegian ship Siem Pilot to get her first sight of the island of Sardinia as they sail in the Mediterranean sea towards the Italian port of Cagliari. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)
Migrants sit on the deck of the Belgian Navy vessel Godetia after they were saved at sea during a search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coasts, Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Hundreds of migrants were rescued on Tuesday by the Godetia, which is part of a EU Navy vessels fleet taking part in the Triton migrants rescue operation. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2015 file photo, migrants disembark from the catamaran Terra Jet at the Athens' port of Piraeus. About 1,800 refugees arrived from the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos as the country has been overwhelmed by record numbers of migrants this year. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)
Syrian refugees walk among fields at the border town of Idomeni, northern Greece to cross the border and enter Macedonia, on Wednesday Aug. 26, 2015. The U.N.’s refugee agency said it expects 3,000 people to cross Macedonia daily in the coming days as Greece has borne the brunt of a record number of refugees and migrants heading to Europe. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)
A migrant jumps a fence as he attempts to access the Channel Tunnel in Calais, northern France, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Thousands of migrants have been scaling fences near the Channel Tunnel linking the two countries and boarding freight trains or trucks destined for Britain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A migrant, hiding under a train, tries to sneak on a train towards Serbia, at the railway station in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Over 1,000 migrants from Middle East, Asia and Africa, enter Macedonia daily from Greece, heading north through the Balkans on their way to the more prosperous European Union countries. The migrants' urgency to reach Europe has become more pronounced as they race to reach Hungary before the Hungarian government finishes building a razor-wire fence. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, migrants try to board a train that would take them toward Serbia at the railway station in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Macedonia is facing an increasing pressure of migrants flow on its southern and northern borders with Greece and Serbia as thousands of migrants from Middle East, Asia and Africa are heading north through the Balkans on their way to the more prosperous European Union countries. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)
A woman looks out of a train that was stopped in Bicske, Hungary, Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Over 150,000 peoplel have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A migrant lies on the track with a baby as she is detained in Bicske, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
FILE - In this Sept 2, 2015 file photo, migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian ship Siem Pilot sailing along the Mediterranean sea. The Siem Pilot is carrying to the Italian Port of Cagliari hundreds of migrants rescued in several operations in the Mediterranean sea. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)
A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of an unidentified migrant child, lifting it from the sea shore, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, Turkey, early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. A number of migrants are known to have died and some are still reported missing, after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized. (AP Photo/DHA) TURKEY OUT
FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2015 file photo, Macedonian police officers help a dehydrated migrant, who is accompanied by a fellow migrant trying to get to a transit center after crossing the border from Greece to Macedonia, near southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Thousands of migrants have poured into Macedonia and boarded trains and buses that are taking them a step closer to the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)
A migrant man holding a boy react as they are stuck between Macedonian riot police officers and migrants during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as they wait to be allowed by the Macedonian police to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. Macedonian special police forces have fired stun grenades to disperse thousands of migrants stuck on a no-man's land with Greece, a day after Macedonia declared a state of emergency on its borders to deal with a massive influx of migrants heading north to Europe. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2015 file photo, a man carries a girl in his arm as they arrive with other migrants just after dawn on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Kos in southeastern Greece. Greece has become the main gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants, mainly Syrians fleeing war, as fighting in Libya has made the alternative route from north Africa to Italy increasingly dangerous. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2015 file photo, a family of refugees hug each other after successfully arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Kos after crossing overnight from Turkey to Greece. Greece has become the main gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants, mainly Syrians fleeing war, as fighting in Libya has made the alternative route from north Africa to Italy increasingly dangerous. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, children play on a train track as migrants wait for a train heading toward Serbia, at the railway station in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Macedonia is facing an increasing pressure of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa flowing into its southern and northern borders with Greece and Serbia and heading toward more prosperous European Union countries. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)
A dinghy with migrants sails under a rising sun a few miles off a coast of the southeastern island of Kos, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Fights broke out among migrants on the Greek island of Kos Tuesday, where overwhelmed authorities are struggling to contain increasing numbers of people arriving clandestinely on rubber dinghies from the nearby Turkish shore. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2015 file photo, a migrant sits at a camp set near Calais, northern France. Thousands of migrants have been scaling fences near the Channel Tunnel linking the two countries and boarding freight trains or trucks destined for Britain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2015 file photo, a migrant sleeps inside a tent at a camp set near Calais, northern France. Thousands of migrants have been scaling fences near the Channel Tunnel linking the two countries and boarding freight trains or trucks destined for Britain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)
FILE - Aug. 4, 2015 file photo, migrants walk along the train tracks after crossing a fence as they attempt to access the Channel Tunnel in Calais, northern France. Thousands of migrants have been scaling fences near the Channel Tunnel linking the two countries and boarding freight trains or trucks destined for Britain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)
In this Monday, April 20, 2015, file photo, the Tunisian navigator Mohammed Ali Malek, and one of the survivors of the boat that overturned off the coast of Libya, waits to disembark from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, at Catania Harbor, Italy. The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that more than 800 people were believed to have drowned in the weekend sinking of a boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe, making it the deadliest such disaster in the Mediterranean. Prosecutors said that after ship captain Mohammed Ali Malek rammed a vessel, terrified migrants rushed around the overcrowded boat, which was already unbalanced from the collision. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)
Migrants wait to disembark from the Irish naval ship Le Eithne, at the Palermo harbor, Italy, Saturday, May 30, 2015. The Italian coast guard says it has coordinated the rescue of more than 4,000 migrants off Libya's coast in 22 separate operations. The rescues, from 13 boats and nine motorized rubber dinghies, took place Friday. Cargo ships and Irish and German navy vessels helped Italian military craft in Friday's rescues. (AP Photo/Alessandro Fucarini)
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A White House spokesman said on Monday the Obama administration "is actively considering a range of approaches to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, including with regard to refugee resettlement."

Spokesman Peter Boogaard said in an emailed statement that the United States had provided over $4 billion in humanitarian assistance since the Syrian crisis began and more than $1 billion in assistance this year." He added: "The U.S. is the single largest donor to the Syrian crisis."

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But moral arguments about the refugees' plight may be overshadowed by the political realities in Washington.

Some congressional Republicans have said allowing in Syrian refugees would constitute a pipeline for terrorists.

"The rhetoric has been really awful," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "The difficulty of doing it is met by this Islamophobia and conflation of Syrians and Iraqis with terrorists.

"Hopefully, the pope will be able to challenge that mindset and soften some hardened hearts, but that remains to be seen."

The administration itself is concerned that militants from Islamic State or al Qaeda might slip into the country as refugees. The State Department has cited Washington's vetting process as a crucial but complicating factor for Syrians seeking entry.

Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, Washington has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees, most of them this year, and the State Department expects 300 more by October.

The number is tiny against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis in which Germanyis preparing for 800,000 asylum seekers this year, around 1 percent of its population, and compared with the overall number of 4 million Syrian refugees.

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged on Monday to take in up to 20,000 refugees from camps in Syria over the next five years, responding to public pressure to help.

While President Barack Obama, a Democrat, does not need congressional approval to allow in more refugees, Zogby said the president could be wary of risking a backlash at a time when he is keen to secure lawmakers' support for a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, including the United States.

Syrian refugee mothers care, fear for their children:

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NTP: Syrian refugee mothers care, fear for newborns
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As Europe handles waves of Syrian refugees, US is slow to help
In this Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 photo, Syrian refugee Wadhah Hamada, 22, holds her son Ra'fat, 10 days, while posing for a portrait inside her father's tent at an informal settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Among the tents of this informal camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, pregnant mothers have given birth to children they struggle to care for amid sandstorms and crushing poverty. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Bushra Eidah,16, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. “We used to be two and now we are three,” Eidah says. “When it was only me and my husband, it didn’t matter if we went to sleep hungry, but now we have a child and I don’t know how we are going to feed her.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Wazeera Elaiwi, 29, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Refugees who live in makeshift camps, like this one near the Jordanian town of Mafraq, face even more dire choices to be able to live close to their jobs on local farms or to have greater freedom. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Feedah Ali, 18, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. “We left Syria two years ago with nothing and today we have nothing, I wish someone could turn to us, help us, take us out of our misery,” Ali says. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Huda Alhumaidi, 30, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. “I’m speechless, I have no words left,” Alhumaidi says. “We are done complaining and begging for help. We are abandoned here. I just want to go back to my country. Even if we have to start from zero there as we lost our home, at least we will be able to live with dignity.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Tuesday, March 17, 2015, top, and Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Huda Alsayil, 20, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. After delivering Mezwid, her first son, despite fears of medical complications, Alsayil says she now feels “complete” for the first time in months. Holding him feels like the best gift I could be granted,” she says. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Khalida Moussa, 28, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. "I delivered several days after my due day and I was so afraid,” Moussa says. “We had to borrow money for me to deliver and up to now my husband hasn’t paid it back. He can’t afford it.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Tuesday, March 17, 2015, top, and Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Mahdiya Alkhalid, 36, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. “We are the ones who live outside of the registered camps with miserable conditions,” Alkhalid says. “My husband has no work. All we want is people to help us and pay us some attention.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Taleea Farhan, 33, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. “Our tent fell on us. I picked up my newly born child in my arms and ran with my other children randomly till we all hid ourselves in a neighbor’s tent for two hours till the storm calmed down,” Farhan recounts. “During these two hours we didn’t stop crying, it was so scary. Up to now, all my children are suffering from infection from the dust.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Mona Hussein, 33, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. "We are left alone. No one comes to check on us. We live by the roadside,” Hussein says. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
COMBO - This combination of two images taken between Monday, March 16, 2015, top, and Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, shows Syrian refugee Wadhah Hamada, 22, posing for a picture while being pregnant, and after giving birth to her child, at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. The challenges that the refugees face is laid bare by Hamada: “Winter is so cold, summer is hot and dry. My husband hardly works and some of the decisions we had to make have been deciding what is more important: To buy bread to feed ourselves or medicine in case my child is in need?" (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
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TERRORISM FEARS PROMPT CAUTION

Previous efforts to increase the flow of Syrian refugees have met strong headwinds.

In May, 14 U.S. Senate Democrats wrote a letter urging the Obama administration to allow at least 65,000 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States. The following month, Republican Representative Michael McCaul objected to the administration's plans to allow nearly 2,000 this year.

"While we have a proud history of welcoming refugees, the Syrian conflict is a unique case requiring heightened vigilance and scrutiny," McCaul, whose Homeland Security Committee has held hearings on the issue, wrote in a letter to Obama.

"It represents the single largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in history," including Islamic State, al Qaeda and Hezbollah, he continued, adding that U.S. security officials did not have the information they need for effective vetting.

Republican Representative Peter King of New York echoed that on Monday, saying there was a clear consensus at the hearings that terrorism was a concern.

"We have to have a very, very thorough vetting process," King said on CNN.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for selecting refugees deemed eligible for resettlement and spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said it has submitted more than 16,300 Syrian refugees for resettlement in the United States.

U.S. consular and security officials, including from the Department of Homeland Security, then vet the applicants overseas before allowing them to board a U.S.-bound plane.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview that the security worries over Syrians were misplaced, given the intense background checks on refugees.

But more resources would have to be allocated for faster vetting. For example, Appleby said, the United States does not process Syrian refugees from Europe but from Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East, where most of the refugees are.

DHS and other government officials were not available to discuss the issue on Monday's Labor Day federal holiday.

Pope Francis is likely to call on the United States to live up to its values as a nation that provides safe haven during his U.S. visit this month, Appleby said.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops has long advocated for more Syrians to be allowed in and believes the country could absorb 100,000.

"It is do-able. It's certainly do-able from our end in terms of resettling them in the United States," Appleby said, pointing to the U.S. absorption of Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War. "It's just a matter of political will."

(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards, Arshad Mohammed, Bill Trott, Victoria Cavaliere and Jeff Mason; Editing by Frances Kerry and Dan Grebler)

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