WASHINGTON The Obama administration is moving to increase and accelerate the number of Syrian refugees who might be admitted into the United States by opening new screening outposts in Iraq and Lebanon, administration officials told Reuters on Friday.
The move comes after President Barack Obama pledged in September to admit an additional 10,000 refugees in 2016 from Syria, torn by four years of civil war and disorder.
The U.S. State Department confirmed the plans to open a refugee settlement processing center in Erbil, Iraq, before the end of 2015, and to resume refugee processing in Lebanon in early 2016, said spokeswoman Danna Van Brandt.
The White House would not say how many additional refugees it may take in beyond the 10,000, but two senior administration officials said they are seeking ways to increase the number.
"We want to be in a place where we can push out really ambitious goals," said one of the officials, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
The State Department runs nine screening centers worldwide that serve as meeting points for refugees and U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees who have to decide who is suitable for resettlement in the United States.
The additional centers will double the number available to refugees in the Middle East. Most Syrians are now screened for potential U.S. resettlement at centers in Istanbul and Amman, Jordan.
The new centers are designed to "increase the channels" the United States has for reaching Syrian refugees, the official said.
Homeland Security workers stopped traveling to Lebanon to meet with refugees when the facility there closed over a year ago due to security concerns.
That closure sparked outrage among refugee advocates who say Lebanon holds the largest number of Syrian refugees, most of whom live in poverty because it is illegal for them to work.
Lebanon announced last month, however, that it would no longer accept Syrian refugees except in special cases.
Amid a tide of refugees in Europe, some congressional Democrats and refugee advocates say the United States should do more for Syrians who often make dangerous journeys to lands where they have no home or means of employment.
Some Republicans have raised concerns that allowing more Syrians into the United States jeopardizes national security.
"We have little or no information about who these people are ... no ability to determine whether they are radicalized," Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said at a hearing on Oct. 2.
Another senior administration official told Reuters that the United States is also encouraging other countries to contribute more money to the United Nations' effort to help refugees.
The administration is also looking to increase aid to Syria's border countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as they take in millions fleeing the war, the official said.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker)