WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is prepared to increase the number of refugees it resettles by at least 5,000 next year as European countries struggle to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Two officials and a congressional aide said that Secretary of State John Kerry told members of Congress in a private meeting Wednesday that the United States will boost its worldwide quota for resettling refugees from 70,000 to 75,000 next year, and that number could rise. A fraction of those would be from Syria.
Kerry said after the meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the U.S. would increase the number of refugees it is willing to take in, but he 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, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went to the Senate floor to urge stronger leadership from President Barack 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 3-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 at the State Department, called for an "emergency global gathering" at the U.N. General Assembly meeting this month, where countries could pledge aid money and to accept some of the migrants.
Germany is bracing for some 800,000 asylum seekers this year. 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.
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.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, attended the meeting with Kerry and said he was concerned that the administration plans "opening the floodgates and using emergency authority to go above what they proposed to Congress in today's consultation."
Grassley urged wealthy Arab states to take in Syrian refugees. Some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been criticized for not doing so.
Currently, the top three groups of people resettled by the U.S. are Burmese, Iraqis and Somalis.
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 may 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 a conference. "We don't obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees."
Asked 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 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.
Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell, Deb Riechmann, Lisa Lerer and Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.
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