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Divisions emerge among Republicans over how to handle Afghan refugees

“We owe it to these people, who are our friends and who worked with us, to get them out safely if we can,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of Afghan allies now marooned under Taliban rule.
“We owe it to these people, who are our friends and who worked with us, to get them out safely if we can,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of Afghan allies now marooned under Taliban rule. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Divisions over how to handle an impending Afghan refugee crisis are beginning to emerge among Republicans, potentially leading to clashes at a time when GOP leaders are trying to keep the party united around its criticism of President Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Several congressional Republicans who have long warned against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan have been quick to say that the United States should welcome refugees fleeing the country to prevent a humanitarian crisis, especially Afghans who assisted the United States during the long war and women — two groups most likely to face violent retribution under the Taliban regime that has seized control.

“We need to care for them,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a local Kentucky television station Tuesday. “We owe it to these people, who are our friends and who worked with us, to get them out safely if we can.”

Several Republican governors have also expressed willingness to accept refugees into their states, especially Afghans who directly helped U.S. troops, diplomats and citizens over the past two decades.

“As you may already know, Utah’s history guides our approach to refugees,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in a letter to Biden on Tuesday. “We are eager to continue that practice and assist with the resettlement of individuals and families fleeing Afghanistan.”

With the Taliban now in control, here’swhat Afghans are seeing in Kabul

But the nativist wing of the party that backed President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda is warning that the Afghan refugees could pose a security threat and is stoking fears about where they would settle in the United States. Some on the right have characterized the arrival of Afghans as part of their broader “replacement theory” warning — the idea that immigrants and particularly undocumented ones are “replacing” natural-born Americans.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson spent Monday night criticizing Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s call for the Biden administration to immediately expedite the asylum process. “If history is any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country, and over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions,” Carlson said. “So first we invade, and then we are invaded.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) rebuked a suggestion by Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, that he may allow the state to accept refugees. He should not do so, she warned, while Americans remain “stranded” in Afghanistan. She also questioned the cost to Georgia taxpayers and added that “the future of GA shouldn’t be like MN that voted for [Rep. Ilhan] Omar, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota and a refugee from Somalia who is often attacked by Republicans.

The warnings are also being pushed by former top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who advocated a restrictive immigration policy that his detractors called racist.

“Resettling in America is not about solving a humanitarian crisis; it’s about accomplishing an ideological objective — to change America,” he said Tuesday night on Fox News.

Trump has not articulated a clear message about refugees yet, but on Wednesday he released a statement criticizing a plane packed with hundreds of Afghans being flown out of the country before all Americans have been brought home.

“This plane should have been full of Americans, America First!” he said.

The potential clash over Afghan refugees could exacerbate tensions over whether Republicans should follow the party’s more traditional hawkish foreign policy approach or continue on the nationalist path laid out by Trump and supported by many GOP voters who remain loyal to the former president. It also could serve to highlight to what degree a nativist, anti-immigrant approach is now the prevailing view in the party even with Trump out of office.

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Many Republicans have been careful to stay out of the debate for now as they continue to hammer Biden over the chaotic scenes in Afghanistan in recent days as the Taliban takes control and Americans and Afghans scramble to leave the country.

House Republican leaders have echoed Trump’s concern without directly addressing the refugee question, focusing instead on getting all Americans out first amid reports that the State Department cannot guarantee their safe travel to the Kabul airport.

“Every American should be evacuated from Afghanistan. Anything less is unAmerican,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said in a tweet Wednesday.

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrote to Biden on Wednesday requesting a briefing on how the administration planned to get American citizens out of Afghanistan.

“It is of the utmost importance that the U.S. Government account for all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and provide the necessary information and means of departure to all those Americans who desire to leave the country,” they wrote.

Congress recently allocated $1.5 billion to help the resettlement of Afghans as part of a larger spending bill passed in late July. Republican aides pointed to the wide support for that bill within the House conference as evidence that most members will support helping people fleeing the Taliban, noting that all but 16 members voted for the bill. The legislation also doubled the amount of special immigration visas issued to Afghans to 19,000 and removed application requirements for those qualified to receive them.

“While I support strong, secure vetting through our refugee programs, it is also critical that America keep its promises to those who have sacrificed so much to help us,” Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.

Sunil Varghese, who serves as policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), said that years of Trump administration anti-immigrant attacks have made it increasingly difficult to enact reforms that would have prevented the backlog occurring now in processing Afghan refugees.

“There was so many attacks on who is a refugee and what refugees were allowed to enter the country that really restricted and made it virtually impossible for refugees to come to the U.S.,” Varghese said.

U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until all American citizens are evacuated, Biden tells ABC News

After the Trump administration was defeated in court for trying to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, it implemented an “extreme vetting” strategy that created a multilayered verification process for refugees. Government documents obtained during lawsuits filed by IRAP against the administration showed that it aimed to hamstring a key section of the Department of Homeland Security that was responsible for interviewing refugees outside the United States ­before clearing them for entry. The changes created a backlog that deterred or made it increasingly difficult for refugees to leave the Middle East, the report found.

In the past, Republicans have viewed refugees fleeing certain countries as a separate issue from undocumented immigrants entering the United States or requesting asylum, but that changed under Trump. He signed an executive order in 2019 giving states and local governments the ability to reject refugees in a move that was largely seen as throwing red meat to his base ahead of an election year. Nineteen states and dozens of local governments led by Republican governors and mayors chose to continue welcoming refugees.

Biden has since signed an executive order reversing Trump’s policy, but Varghese said that while Democrats favor increasing funding to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and other agencies that would help expedite refugee and asylum cases, the Biden administration has yet to do so or say whether it would, given the crisis emerging in Afghanistan.

Biden defends decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after Taliban’s rapid return to power

Moreover, pro-refugee resettlement groups have pushed Biden to act unilaterally and allow Afghans to be processed in the United States rather than a third country; many Republicans agree with the Biden administration’s current position to process screenings in another country first.

“We need to protect these American lives and every individual that fought with us and every promise we made to them. We need to get them out of the country into a third country to be able to screen them before we bring them in,” McCarthy said. “The president should be working on this day and night, not hiding, not vacationing, but getting the job done because we will do it. We will work together to make this happen.”