Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks

Some Republicans are betting that sowing fear about the U.S. accepting thousands of Afghan refugees will aid them in the midterms‚ a risk that could backfire, as polls show a majority support allowing those who fled to enter the country.

Republicans broadly have unified behind attacks on Biden’s handling of immigration issues and those seeking entry into the United States.

But on Afghan refugees, the GOP is divided, with some raising concerns about the security risk of accepting refugees and others saying the U.S. must embrace them.

Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale (R) complained his state might receive 75 refugees and that the “mass evacuation of over 100,000 Afghan nationals in a matter of weeks has made proper vetting of these individuals near impossible.”

“This is a dangerous part of the world. We know that we have a lot of dangerous people there that want to do the United States harm,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, one of two GOP governors who say they will not accept refugees, said last month. “And they should not be coming to the United States unless we know for sure that they are an ally and a friend and don’t wish to destroy this country.”

Some of the most forceful rhetoric has come from former aides to former President Trump, who in his own statement last month said, “We can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world.”

“If you bring in several provinces worth of individuals from Afghanistan, you will replicate the conditions of Afghanistan here in the United States of America and all the horrors that entails,” former Trump adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson this month. 

Others have offered a more nuanced message that emphasizes more of an acceptance of Afghan refugees, saying they should be welcome if properly vetted.

“We have a moral responsibility to welcome the Afghan evacuees who have stood by us and who have had to flee their country because of the feckless actions of the Biden administration. I agree with that,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said last week.

“We also, though, have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure the safety and security of American citizens in American communities by doing the proper vetting so we are not releasing terrorists or criminals into our ranks,” he said.

Some GOP strategists say those raising concerns are just playing to the party’s base.

“So much politics now is performative politics to the base,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “It speaks to a base that is vehemently anti-illegal immigration and not terribly for legal immigration either.”

Heye said it was unclear how the issue will play out in primaries but that it can be important where immigration is very important to GOP voters in a specific state or district.

Advocates for refugees are speaking out about criticism that is colored with xenophobia.  

“It has been interesting to see the outpouring of support in terms of the American public contrasted with some of the political rhetoric from politicians,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is helping resettle Afghan refugees.

“We’ve heard elected officials sound an Islamophobic and anti-immigrant dog whistle to sow doubt about brave individuals who championed American ideals. … These families and individuals are not security threats. They faced Taliban retribution, which is why they deserved and needed our protection. They’re not the danger; they were in danger,” Vignarajah said.

The White House has sought to counter the rhetoric by emphasizing the vetting process faced by Afghan refugees entering the country.

Afghan allies who assisted the military are entering the U.S. through the 14-step special immigrant visa process, with some remaining on military bases while the process is completed.

Others entering as refugees have their names and biometric data such as fingerprints run through a slew of different agencies’ databases run by various intelligence outlets. Biden tasked the Department of Homeland Security with overseeing the process.

The bulk of the screening takes place abroad at the military bases housing evacuees, and in a few cases, the U.S. has even removed refugees to Kosovo for additional screening.

Polling shows the public is largely supportive of accepting Afghan refugees, though the opinions fall along sharp partisan lines.

A Pew Research Center survey released on Thursday found that a solid majority of U.S. adults — 56 percent — favor admitting Afghan refugees into the U.S. Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on the issue, with 75 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning moderates supporting the admittance of Afghan refugees and 63 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning moderates opposing the practice.

Fifty-four percent of Republicans also say they are not at all confident that the U.S. is performing adequate security screenings of Afghan refugees, while 68 percent of Democrats are at least somewhat confident in the screening process, according to Pew.

Influencing GOP voters are the comments of Republican officials expressing concern over refugees.

But some say the comments risk playing politics with a group that desperately needs assistance.

“The questioning the security vetting argument you can never win with people who won’t take anything less than Trump-style, let-two-people-in-a-year vetting,” said Chris Purdy, who leads the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First.

He warned the rhetoric is even more dangerous given the uptick in domestic extremism and hate crimes.

“I’m worried about extremist groups, these Jan. 6 types, that are going to latch onto this — and they can’t be controlled by anybody — and latch onto this as a reason frankly to lash out,” Purdy said.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advised Biden’s presidential campaign, said that Democrats running against Republican opponents who criticize Biden for admitting refugees can diffuse the messages with a two-pronged argument: that the U.S. needs to keep its commitment to Afghans who assisted U.S. forces for 20 years and that Afghan allies are the “most vetted people out there” because they have served alongside Americans for two decades.

“Unfortunately I don’t hear enough Democrats giving that answer, but it’s very easy to turn back,” she said, though she noted that the issue is not a pressing concern for voters.

For Democrats, though, the vulnerability may be less about the specific line of attack on refugees and more about the risk of backlash over Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan overall.

Polls show that voters support the president’s decision to withdraw from the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, but they also indicate that voters are less supportive of the handling of the withdrawal.

Biden withstood criticism from Republicans and Democrats for the chaotic nature of the withdrawal, during which thousands of Americans and Afghans were evacuated but many Afghan allies were left behind.

Foreign policy is not typically top of mind for voters when they head to the polls. Average voters are more likely to pay closer attention to issues such as the economy and the coronavirus, though surveys indicate that perceptions of Biden’s handling of his job have become more negative amid the Afghanistan drawdown.

“Afghanistan is not going to be most likely a voting issue in fourteen months, but it has chipped away at core arguments of Biden’s — overwhelmingly one of competency,” said Heye, the GOP strategist. 

Tags Afghanistan Donald Trump Kristi Noem refugees Rob Portman Stephen Miller Tucker Carlson

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