By JON BANISTER
WASHINGTON—After repeated calls from former Maryland governor and presidential candidate Martin O'Malley for the United States to take more Syrian refugees, the Obama administration is signaling that it may be ready to do just that.
"We are committed to increasing the number of refugees that we take. And we are looking hard at a number that we can specifically manage with respect to the crisis in Syria and Europe," Secretary of State John Kerry told a group of reporters after a meeting on Capitol Hill Wednesday, according to published reports. "That's being vetted fully right now and I think at the appropriate time we'll have a better sense of what exactly that number will be."
O'Malley's call for the United States to accept 65,000 refugees came after a photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy's body washed up on a Turkish beach sparked outrage last week. The photograph underscored the harsh realities of a four-year war that has left more than 4 million Syrian refugees in need of resettlement.
The State Department announced last week it expected to welcome between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, up from 1,000 to 2,000 in FY15. This number did not satisfy O'Malley, who has been vocal about the United States taking greater leadership in humanitarian crises.
"For us to sit back and do nothing and say 'oh we can only accept 8,000 people as part of this crisis,' I think is morally indefensible," O'Malley said Tuesday on CNN. "We need to remember that our enduring symbol is the statue of liberty. We need to be a leader among nations when it comes to alleviating this crisis. 65,000 is not too large a number for a country as strong and as big as the United States."
In a statement released Friday, O'Malley noted that Germany has agreed to accept 800,000 Syrian refugees, adding "certainly we - the nation of immigrants and refugees - can do more."
A Guardian survey of all 22 presidential candidates released Monday found that O'Malley is the only candidate to unequivocally say the U.S. should accept more refugees, though some candidates, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, did not respond to the newspaper's request.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency in charge of finding settlement for Syrian refugees, has said it is seeking sanctuary for 130,000 Syrian refugees in the next two years, and the UNHCR hopes the United States can take a greater role.
"The U.S. is the global leader on resettlement so what they do is an example to other countries," said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for UNHCR in Washington. "We're happy that they're setting a goal of 6,000 to 8,000, we hope they'd be on the high side of that and that in the future we can find a way to make that number go higher."
Refugee Council USA, a coalition of U.S.-based organizations focused on refugee protection, earlier this year called for the United States to accept 65,000 refugees.
In May, a group of 14 Democratic Senators led by Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sent a letter to President Obama voicing support for this call and urging the administration to take greater action to resettle Syrian refugees.
"The Syrian refugee crisis is perhaps the most serious challenge to the legal obligation to protect refugees since World War II," the letter read. "We cannot expect countries hosting Syrian refugees to continue shouldering such a disproportionate burden if the United States and other industrialized countries do not begin resettling many more Syrian refugees."
Since the crisis has worsened, RCUSA Director Naomi Steinberg said her agency has increased its recommendation and called for the United States to accept 100,000 Syrian Refugees, a dramatic increase from recent years.
"There has been a giant void in political leadership on this issue," Steinberg said. "So we welcome any national leader talking about the need to welcome more refugees in the United States."
O'Malley spokesperson Haley Morris said the former Governor's call to action is consistent with positions of moral leadership he has taken in the past.
"In the face of this crisis, as he did last year, Governor O'Malley believes we have a moral duty to respond," Morris said in an e-mail.
O'Malley last summer was a vocal opponent of the White House's proposal to return Central American migrant children to their homes.
"We are Americans, and we do not return refugee kids who find themselves on our doorstep back into war-torn or famine-racked places where they will face certain death," O'Malley said in an interview with CNN at the time.