WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the Obama administration aims to allow more refugees to resettle in the United States, including a larger number of Syrians who are fleeing their homes for Europe and other Middle Eastern countries at crisis levels.
"We are committed to increasing the number of refugees that we take and we are looking hard at the number that we can specifically manage with respect to the crisis in Syria and Europe," Kerry told reporters after meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol.
He said the number of refugees who will be accepted has not yet been determined and is being "vetted fully right now." President Barack Obama must set the figures for refugee admissions for fiscal year 2016 by the end of the month, but the administration has not yet stated whether a large increase in the number of Syrians admitted will be a part of that figure.
A senior State Department official declined later Wednesday to offer a specific figure for refugee resettlement next fiscal year, but said it would be higher than the ceiling of 70,000 that has been in place for the past three fiscal years. The official told reporters that along with admitting more Syrians, the administration is aiming to take in more people from Africa, particularly Congolese refugees.
Kerry told lawmakers that the refugee admission number for next fiscal year will go up to at least 75,000 and that they are still seeking to increase it further, according to a Senate aide who requested anonymity to talk about the private meeting.
The U.S. is under pressure to take in more Syrians. More than 4 million have left their homes since the start of the civil war there, and more than 2,600 migrants drowned this year in the Mediterranean en route to Greece or Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. One of the Syrians who drowned, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, drew more attention to the crisis when a photo emerged last week of his body washed up on a beach in Turkey.
Groups devoted to resettling refugees have long said the number allowed should be far higher, and are now calling for the U.S. to take in 100,000 Syrians next fiscal year, along with 100,000 people from other countries. Germany expects to take in 800,000 refugees this year. By contrast, the U.S. has accepted only 1,500 Syrians since the beginning of the war in 2011.
The U.S. contributes significant aid to refugees, including about $4 billion for migrant camps in Europe, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
Kerry told The Huffington Post's Sam Stein in an interview last week that the U.S. "could do a lot more to protect those people," but with regards to camps overseas, not resettlement in the U.S.
A number of politicians have said the U.S. should do more to help Syrians who fled their country, and some have offered specific numbers of refugees that the country should accept.
Fourteen Senate Democrats called in May for the U.S. to accept at least 65,000 Syrians. Pressure has grown since Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said last week that the U.S. should accept that number of Syrians by the end of 2016.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is asking colleagues to sign onto a letter calling for the U.S. to admit at least 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016, he told HuffPost Wednesday evening. That might require additional resources to vet the potential refugees more quickly, he said, but argued that this would be warranted given the urgency of the crisis.
"When you think of what other countries are doing, [the figure] does not seem excessive or unreasonable," Cicilline said. "I think there's a tremendous need and I think the entire world has a responsibility to be responding to this serious humanitarian crisis."
Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier Wednesday that the United Nations should convene an "emergency global gathering where the UN literally tries to get commitments" to take in refugees, but did not indicate how many people the U.S. should take in.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. has an obligation to take in more people and should appropriate more funding for refugee organizations, along with responding in other ways.
"My goal is to make sure they don't have to flee their country," he said. "They're not coming here because they want to. Women are coming here because they're being raped. Christians are coming here because they're being subject to genocide. People leaving Syria are fleeing tyranny, not to get jobs."
His fellow GOP candidate Donald Trump also said the U.S. should accept more refugees.
Others have been vague on how the U.S. should respond, other than to say something must be done. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters on Wednesday that the crisis in Syria was caused by "the president's lack of strategy with regards to ISIS and what's happening in Syria is causing a worldwide problem."
"This refugee crisis in Europe is serious; it needs to be dealt with," he continued. "How we deal with it and what our role is in trying to help resolve it frankly is unclear to me at this moment."
There is some pushback to the idea of accepting more refugees from Republicans who say it would run the risk of letting jihadists into the country. Refugees go through a long security vetting process -- sometimes more than 18 months -- before being admitted into the U.S.
Some Republicans say the president should ramp up his military response in Syria and the Middle East, rather than discussing refugee resettlement.
“We must not avert our eyes from Aylan and the millions of other refugees running for their lives," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "We must commit to a strategy to defeat the malign forces in the region that are sowing chaos and mass destruction."
This story has been updated with additional comments from the State Department, a Senate aide and Rep. David Cicilline.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated that Rep. David Cicilline is urging the U.S. to accept at least 65,000 Syrians by the end of the year. He is calling for that number to be accepted by the end of 2016.