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Biden headed for divisive debate over resettlement of Afghanistan refugees

A group of Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport where they will board a bus to be taken to the Dulles Expo Center for processing after arriving in the United States in Dulles, VA on Monday. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

President Biden, already facing political peril over the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, has in recent days waded into an escalating domestic debate over thousands of refugees slated to be resettled in the United States.

Criticism is intensifying on Fox News, among Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin where some refugees are being temporarily housed, and from the nativist, anti-immigrant factions in the country that helped Donald Trump ride into the White House.

From some, there is anger that too many Afghans might be left behind. From others — particularly among conservative Republicans — there is worry that too many might be allowed to come. And at the center is Biden, facing difficult decisions and ramifications that could linger for months if not years.

Senior administration officials have sought to counter any notion that they will flood the country with unvetted refugees in the rush to provide safe harbor to Afghans fleeing the new Taliban government

But senior administration officials have also so far declined to provide figures on how many Afghans have been processed since the evacuation began, or how many they anticipate having to resettle in the United States. They have also not said whether they expect to raise the refugee cap, citing a fluid situation.

Biden is attempting to strike a balance between keeping doors open to America for the Afghans who assisted in the war effort — and the demands to make sure those lifted out of an area with sworn enemies of the United States undergo significant security checks.

“Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check,” Biden said Tuesday. “And we must all work together to resettle thousands of Afghans who ultimately qualify for refugee status. The United States will do our part, and we are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild a system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor.”

The politics around refugees are deeply unsettled and faces a long history of uncertain outcomes for politicians. Both parties — Republicans in particular — are in discord over how to handle the issue, with widely different definitions of who and how many should be allowed to come to the United States.

“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,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said during one of several segments he has devoted to the issue over the last week. “So first we invade, and then we are invaded.”

But polling suggests that even in the midst of deep partisan divides, there is widespread bipartisan support for helping Afghan translators and others who aided the U.S.-led war effort. Some 81 percent of Americans said the United States should support those Afghans, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll published on Sunday, with 90 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans backing the efforts.

Biden has prided himself as a consensus builder and a pragmatic politician, one who usually identifies the middle ground and figures out where public opinion is heading to make sure he arrives there first. He was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage before others joined, and during the presidential campaign he was a vocal opponent of calls to “defund police” despite pressure from activists in his party.

“It’s crucial that we bring Americans who want to leave Afghanistan home now and that we keep faith with the Afghans who put their lives at risk to serve alongside our military,” said deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates.

White House officials and Biden’s political advisers have been closely tracking some of the rhetoric of Republican lawmakers, including some who voted just weeks ago against allocating $1.5 billion to help the resettlement of Afghans but are now criticizing Biden for not doing more.

Republicans are splintered over how to handle the issue, and have yet to find a consistent party-wide attack on Biden.

Trump has offered a number of contradictory criticisms, initially saying that Biden should have done more to help Afghan allies and then, following photos of military aircraft filled with Afghans, saying Americans should take priority. By this week, he settled on criticizing the vetting process and the potential for admitting those with unknown backgrounds into the country.

“You can be sure the Taliban, who are now in complete control, didn’t allow the best and brightest to board these evacuation flights,” Trump said Tuesday. “Instead, we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday said he was concerned that early planes were carrying unknown people with potentially questionable ties.

“I will tell you, from an ISIS, from al-Qaeda, and from a Taliban point of view, do you think they’ll take advantage of this situation? Do you think they put some people in there?” he said. “I pretty much believe they would.”

Biden administration officials have gone to greater lengths in recent days to explain the vetting process and attempt to rebut such criticism.

After flights filled with Afghans leave the Kabul airport, they said, evacuees are flown into third-party countries. At that point, they undergo biometric and biographical background checks. If they are cleared, they can fly to the United States and then must submit to health screenings, which includes coronavirus testing and soon will probably also include vaccinations.

They fill out applications for work authorizations and are connected with refugee agencies who can help with resettlement. Many will continue to be housed at military bases — Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin are two of the main sites — before being cleared to leave. A senior administration official could not say how long that process might take, but said the expectation is not for refugees to spend months on the military bases.

It has been unclear just how many refugees the United States may admit. Biden said that he believed the United States would help evacuate between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans, which included visa applicants and their families. The president of Refugees International wrote a letter to Biden urging him to express willingness to resettle up to 200,000 Afghan refugees.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged ongoing support for eligible people who want to leave after the self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. military withdrawal, though the U.S. Embassy is expected to remain shuttered. Blinken, speaking at the State Department on Wednesday, made no new commitments to would-be refugees.

“There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave, and have been unable to do so,” Blinken said.

Some Republicans in Congress now want to limit the number of Afghan refugees to just those who served in the battlefield with American soldiers and their closest family members.

“Any Afghani who was an interpreter, [attached] to Americans in the fight, with hot lead flying in their direction, can live in my neighborhood,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Tuesday, voicing concerns about the broader definition some are using to allow “allies” into the refugee program.

“I am concerned that the current universe of people, that the Biden administration is looking to bring into the country, is greater than those that were actually in the fight and in the gravest danger when facing the Taliban,” he said.

Several top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have been adamant about the need to welcome refugees into the United States. In Texas, which houses a military base where many Afghans are being taken, Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz both offered support.

A number of Republican governors, including Larry Hogan (Md.), Spencer Cox (Utah), and Charlie Baker (Mass.), have also said Afghan refugees would be welcome in their states.

But others in the party are much less open to the idea, reflecting the turmoil within their party and the turn it has taken on refugees.

J.D. Vance, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, wrote that he would “like to hear zero about Afghan refugees until we get every single American out first.”

Democrats remain hopeful that the issue will be different from the divisive border politics of the last decade, particularly because of the different nature of the two groups.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the electoral backlash,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who served in combat with a Marine Corps infantry unit in Iraq and has been deeply involved in the debate over immigration at the Southern border.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) was among the Vietnamese boat refugees in the late 1970s. Her family was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy before settling in Northern Virginia. On Tuesday she recalled how the Carter administration faced a hostile public that did not want an influx of refugees, but then sent the vice president, Walter Mondale, to the United Nations to deliver a forceful speech.

“He gives this speech that is rooted in how the community of nations failed the Jewish people in the ‘30s by refusing to take refugees and he implores the community of nations that they need to do their part here,” Murphy said, suggesting the same theme applies today. “If we succeed, history will never forget us. If we fail, history will never forgive us.”

Anne Gearan contributed to this report.