Two officials and a congressional aide said that Secretary of State John Kerry told members of Congress in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the United States will boost its worldwide quota for resettling refugees from 70,000 to 75,000 next year, a number that could increase further. A fraction of those would be from Syria.
Kerry said after the meeting that the United States would increase the number of refugees it is willing to take in but did not give a specific number.
"We are looking hard at the number that we can specifically manage with respect to the crisis in Syria and Europe," he said. "That's being vetted fully right now."
The officials and the congressional aide spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private meeting on the record.
Shortly after Kerry's meeting, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona went to the Senate floor to urge stronger leadership from Obama on stemming violence in the Middle East and North Africa. He stood next to an enlarged, close-up photo of the dead body of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned along with his 5-year-old brother and mother when their small rubber boat capsized as it headed for Greece.
"This image has haunted the world," McCain said. "But what should haunt us even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes is the thought that the United States will continue to do nothing meaningful about it."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the Obama administration has been looking at a "range of approaches" for assisting U.S. allies with 340,000 people freshly arrived from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Many are fleeing parts of Iraq that are under the Islamic State group's control.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kerry's predecessor, called for an "emergency global gathering" at the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month, where countries could pledge aid money and to accept some of the migrants. The event would be similar to a gathering convened after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The top three groups of people resettled by the U.S. are Burmese, Iraqis and Somalis. Beyond Syrians, the administration wants to increase the number of Africans coming to the United States next year, according to a senior U.S. official involved in the process.
While Germany braces for some 800,000 asylum seekers this year, the U.S. hadn't previously said if it would increase its worldwide quota. Throughout Syria's 4½-year civil war, the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 Syrians — a tiny percentage of the 11.6 million people who have been chased out of the country or uprooted from their homes.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. accepted more than a million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In more recent years the U.S. has taken in large numbers of Muslim Kosovar Albanians and refugees from Iraq.
But what those crises involved and Syria's may lack is a sense of U.S. responsibility. Refugee operations in Southeast Asia followed years of U.S. warfare there, as did the decision to take in tens of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade. Many Americans will feel differently about taking large numbers of Syrians displaced by a war that the United States has tried hard to avoid.
In addition, U.S. intelligence officials say they are concerned that the flow of migrants into Europe has been infiltrated by Islamic State group extremists who are bent on carrying out terror attacks.
"Exactly what's their background?" Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday during an industry conference. "We don't obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees."
Asked directly if the Obama administration felt responsible to share Europe's refugee burden, Earnest stressed U.S. support thus far: $4 billion in humanitarian aid, more than any other country has provided, and ongoing diplomatic work to resolve Syria's conflict peacefully. The diplomacy appears nowhere near ending violence that started in 2011 with a government crackdown on political opponents, spawning an armed insurgency and eventually leading to Islamic State extremists seizing much of the country.