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Opinion Biden shouldn’t cave to the bigots on evacuating our Afghan allies

President Biden removes his mask in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 16. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Lots of explanations have been floated for why the Biden administration didn’t get more Afghan allies and refugees out before U.S. troops withdrew, as it had been urged to do.

Maybe the problem was disorganization. Maybe, as President Biden says, people “did not want to leave earlier” (a claim belied by the 20,000 primary applicants stuck in the backlog of visas for military interpreters and others who aided U.S. interests). Maybe the administration didn’t want to trigger a “crisis of confidence” in the Afghan government (which happened anyway).

There’s also a more stomach-churning possibility: that Biden didn’t evacuate Afghan allies sooner because he was afraid of what Fox News might say.

The Post and other outlets have reported that Biden feared the “optics” of flying in refugees from Afghanistan amid an influx of migrants at the U.S. southern border. These are entirely separate issues, with different populations and different legal and vetting systems. Migrants at the southern border show up without permission or advance screening; those fleeing Afghanistan are predominantly people who already had security clearances, who worked in some capacity for the U.S. government and whose families are at risk because they helped us.

They were also promised U.S. protection.

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The administration reportedly feared right-wingers would conflate the issues, and rather than correcting this demagoguery, the White House apparently decided to concede the point.

Since April, the Biden administration has given no fewer than a half dozen explanations for the slow withdrawal of Afghan allies from Afghanistan. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

As one administration official told Politico, “It’s like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don’t want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers.”

I’ve heard similar themes in my own interviews. People involved in White House discussions said they were told that fear of nativist backlash was a major factor delaying relocation of Afghan interpreters and other allies to U.S. soil, and that this was why the administration was trying to persuade a “third country” to accept our wartime allies.

The White House denies that political cowardice caused its foot-dragging. But if true, this wouldn’t be the first time fear of right-wing blowhards distorted Biden’s immigration policies.

In February, Biden announced he was lifting Donald Trump’s draconian restrictions on worldwide refugee admissions. Then, inexplicably, Biden didn’t sign the paperwork to put his change into effect. Refugees who’d already been fully vetted, approved and booked onto flights by the State Department were left stranded.

For months, the White House refused to explain the delay; spokespeople repeated the same content-free bromides about how Biden believes refugees are “the heart and soul of this country.”

Eventually it came out that Biden was dragging his feet because of worries about political optics.

Then as now, his attempt to duck GOP attacks backfired. His delays inspired several negative news cycles about his broken promises. By the time he finally signed the paperwork, the refugee system had been effectively shut down for months, leaving Biden on track to close out the fiscal year with the lowest refugee admissions on record.

Even lower than under Trump alone.

You might wonder how the nativists have responded to Biden’s attempts to cave to their preferences. Unsurprisingly: They’re still not happy!

Amid Biden’s delays over the refugee ceiling, and his decisions to maintain other (possibly unlawful) Trump-era immigration policies, Trumpers continued to attack him. Fast-forward to today, as former Trump officials ludicrously fearmonger that Afghans who assisted U.S. troops are dangerous and claim that efforts to rescue them are an extension of Biden’s “self-destructive open border policies.” Tucker Carlson and fellow Fox News colleagues accuse Biden of encouraging Afghan refugees to “change” or even “invade” America, offering rhetoric reminiscent of the white-supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.

Here’s the thing Biden never learned: No matter what he does, these bad-faith demagogues will accuse him of "open borders.” So he might as well pursue the policies he thinks are right and not let decisions be dictated by fear of how Fox News might frame them.

This is especially true of today’s Afghan refugee crisis, since there are many conservatives who do support efforts to keep our promises to wartime allies and welcome them here for resettlement. They include veterans who fought alongside these allies, as well as Republican governors, senators and congressmen.Republican lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to fund more visas for Afghan allies, as Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) pointed out in an interview.

“If there is one immigration issue that could have rallied conservatives, it is the protection of Afghans who have helped our military,” said Ali Noorani, president and chief executive of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization working with faith, law enforcement and business leaders. “This was a profound misreading of the politics by the [administration]. And, even worse, believing Tucker Carlson represents America.”

Biden calls himself pro-immigrant. His appointees to senior immigration posts have generally been excellent. And unlike his openly xenophobic predecessor, Biden speaks warmly of newcomers and their contributions to this country. But such words are meaningless if he still caves to the bigots when it matters.