ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the U.S., this tidal wave of refugees has barely made a ripple. Larry Yungk is with the U.N.'s refugee office. He is the point person between that operation called the UNHCR and the U.S. resettlement program for refugees. He says one problem getting Syrians to this country is bureaucracy.
LARRY YUNGK: The U.S. program's a very slow one. It takes, at minimum, I would say - the best you could ever hope for is nine months. That's kind of the equivalent of hitting every green light on your commute. I would say - if I was counseling a refugee, I would saying, you know, expect 18 to 24 months in the U.S. program.
The reasons are, the Department of Homeland Security officer has to interview you. After your interview you will have to go through exhaustive background and security checks through multiple different agencies of the U.S. You have medical checks. And all of those have to be green - you know, good at the same time. If you have a big family, that means four or five people - every one of those checks has to be approved at the same time.
SHAPIRO: This is one of the complaints that we heard from refugees we spoke to, is that your medical check gets cleared for 90 days, and by the time you finally get a security check cleared, the medical check has expired, and you have to go back and do it all over again. That seems like this is not only bad for the refugees. It's bad for the U.S. agencies that are having to give the same people the same checks over and over again because the green light has turned to a red light and you have to make it a green light again.
YUNGK: Yeah. It is a resource problem, and I know that's why - that our counterparts in the U.S. government's been trying to find ways to reduce that problem. And I think we've seen improvement. And you see that in the rising number of arrivals over the last few months.
SHAPIRO: OK. So you say we're seeing improvement. Do you see the U.S. as a global leader?
YUNGK: Well, the U.S. program is a leader for us. Globally, they take half of all refugees, and we hope that in the Syria context, that they'll get the same range.
SHAPIRO: That's Larry Yungk with the U.N.'s Refugee Agency. Despite his hopes, at the moment, the U.S. has taken in far fewer Syrian refugees than some other developed countries. As much as some activists are pressuring the U.S. to do more, many others are urging the U.S. to do less, to close its doors.
ED PAWLOWSKI: I've literally gotten close to 2,000 emails in the last 24 hours from folks across the country saying not to take these refugees in.
SHAPIRO: That's Allentown, Pa., mayor Ed Pawlowski. He cosigned an open letter to President Obama urging the U.S. to take in more Syrian refugees. Others who signed the letter include mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and several other major cities. Now Pawlowski is seeing a backlash in the form of an email campaign.
PAWLOWSKI: And the tagline is, this is not good for our city. And it's, like, from Plano, Texas.
PAWLOWSKI: (Laughter). Which...
SHAPIRO: Do you know who's organizing this?
PAWLOWSKI: I have no clue. What's interesting to me is the amount of vigor. I mean, I must've gotten 20 to 30 emails just now, and they're from all over the country. And ironically, I - out of the thousands, I've only got one from Allentown, Pa., (laughter).
SHAPIRO: So far, the U.S. has taken in fewer than 2000 refugees from Syria. President Obama recently announced that the number will go up to 10,000. What do you think the appropriate number is given that some 12 million Syrians have lost their homes?
PAWLOWSKI: You know, I think the appropriate number is as many as we can handle here within the U.S. Look at - we - the Middle East is in the worst refugee crisis probably since - that we've seen since World War II. These immigrants, these refugees have come here into Allentown in the past. They're facing horrible conditions. The wars have destroyed their homes. They destroyed their families. And I truly believe, personally, as a mayor in the United States, we're the most prosperous country in the world, and we can't turn our backs on these people out of fear. We can't turn our backs on these people because we can't say that we don't have the resources. We do.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that there will be pushback from within Allentown, people who don't want Syrians to come and make a home in your city?
PAWLOWSKI: Sure. I'm sure there'll be people that'll push back. I'm sure there'll be people that'll push back in every city for every mayor that's signed that letter. But at the same time, I really, truly believe it is our role and responsibility. And cities are made and built upon the backs of the immigrant populations that move here. And that's what makes cities great. A city that isn't growing in immigrant population is dying.
You know, from my vantage point as a municipal leader, I'm saying I want that growth. And for those who disagree, they have the right to disagree. I mean, it is America. It's a free country. But as long as I'm mayor, we're going to be open and receptive and welcome those strangers among us.
SHAPIRO: Allentown, Pa., mayor Ed Pawlowski, thank you very much.
PAWLOWSKI: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: All this week, we'll be hearing the stories of some of the lucky few Syrians who have come to the U.S. as refugees as they begin a new life in this country.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.