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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who is bracing for an election rematch with Democratic challenger Russ Feingold, was asked at a public forum how concerned he is about the government’s plans to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria -- a move that stoked fears about terrorism in the U.S.
In his response, the Wisconsin Republican made a claim that suggests President Barack Obama has unilateral powers when it comes to resettlement.
"President Obama has the legal authority to let in really however many refugees he wants, from whatever country," Johnson said Feb. 5, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee. "That’s his legal authority."
The statement by Johnson, who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, overstates the president’s authority.
By law, the president sets the framework for accepting refugees -- setting an annual ceiling on the number and setting priorities on which countries are included.
But the ceiling figure can’t come out of thin air -- it must be chosen in consultation with Congress. Moreover, the president and Congress set budgets for the agencies involved in resettlement.
Trouble in Syria
A refugee is defined as a person fleeing his or her country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion
In Syria, unrest began in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring. Assad’s regime responded with violence, and the country spiraled into a civil war. Civilians have been fleeing unrest in Syria — where more than 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Almost 130,000 Syrian migrants have reached Europe by sea just during the first two months of 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The crisis in Europe led Obama in September 2015 to tell his administration to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next year. That was up from fewer than 2,000 over the previous 12 months.
Prior to the start of each federal fiscal year (which begins Oct. 1), the president must determine the number of refugees --"as justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest." The president must arrive at the number, as well as the allocation of refugee slots, after consultation with the House and Senate judiciary committees.
As Johnson indicated, speaking strictly about legal authority, the president sets the framework and Congress has no specific power to change the framework.
The president does take the lead, but in consultation with Congress, on setting what becomes a ceiling on the number of refugees expected to be accepted each year and the priorities in terms of which countries the refugees come from.
As a practical matter, the president wouldn’t be able to pick a number out of thin air. Moreover, Congress holds the power of the purse in funding the agencies involved in resettlement.
The figures for the annual ceiling, and for the number of total refugees actually admitted, have been relatively stable during Obama’s time in office, according to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The ceiling was 80,000 in fiscal 2009, 2010 and 2011. It dropped to 76,000 in fiscal 2012, then to 70,000 the next three years, before rising to 85,000 in fiscal 2016. Actual admissions didn’t reach the ceiling until fiscal 2013.
Refugees are processed and admitted to the United States from abroad. The State Department handles overseas processing of refugees and the Department of Homeland Security makes final determinations about eligibility for admission.
Which brings up an important point: Those agencies rely on both the president and Congress to for funding. That joint authority was underscored in January 2016 when Obama designated up to $70 million from a special fund set up by Congress to handle the 2016 increase in refugee settlement.
It’s also important to remember that, regardless of the refugee numbers set by the president, refugees actually admitted into the U.S. must pass a variety of reviews -- a process that typically takes 18 to 24 months.
Security, of course, is a major concern. Terrorism-related grounds for refusing applicants "have been amended to lower the threshold for how substantial, apparent, and immediate an alien’s support for a terrorist activity or organization may be," according to the Congressional Research Service report.
An alien, according to the report, "is generally inadmissible for engaging in terrorist activity if he or she gives any material support, such as a safe house, transportation, communications, or funds, to a terrorist organization or any of its members or to a person engaged in terrorist activity."
At the same time, there are so many refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. that even if many applicants are rejected, there are more than enough others to take their place before the ceiling is reached.
Johnson said Obama "has the legal authority to let in really however many refugees he wants, from whatever country."
Federal law requires the president each year to set a ceiling on the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States in the next 12 months and to set priorities on which countries they come from. But the president does not have unilateral authority.
The president must set the framework in consultation with Congress. And both the president and Congress determine funding for the federal agencies involved in the resettlement process.
For a statement is that is partially accurate but leaves out important details, our rating is Half True.
Marquette University Law School, video (13:00) of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson forum, Feb. 5, 2016
Email, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson communications director Patrick McIlheran, Feb. 8, 2016
PolitiFact National, "PolitiFact Sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees," Nov. 29, 2015
PolitiFact National, "Donald Trump says President Obama wants the U.S. to take in 250,000 people from Syria," Dec. 1, 2015
FactCheck.org, "Facts about the Syrian refugees," Nov. 23, 2015
Congressional Research Service, "Refugee admissions and resettlement policy," Feb. 18, 2015
U.S. State Department, "Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2016," Oct. 1, 2015
Interview, Susan Akram, director of Boston University’s International Human Rights Clinic, March 7, 2016
Email, Steve Vladeck, law professor at American University, March 4, 2016
CNN, "Obama designates $70 million for refugees," Jan. 14, 2016
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