The Latest G.O.P. Schism: How to Handle Afghan Evacuees – The New York Times

The resettlement of Afghan allies in the U.S. is revealing an internal divide between the party’s anti-immigrant wing and other conservatives who want to help the refugees.

Afghan refugees arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Tuesday.
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Annie Karni

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is united in its criticism of President Biden’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the crisis has also exposed a deep internal divide between party leaders over relocating Afghan refugees at home.

Many Republican lawmakers have accused Mr. Biden of abandoning the Afghan interpreters and guides who helped the United States during two decades of war, leaving thousands of people in limbo in a country now controlled by the Taliban.

But others — including former President Donald J. Trump and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader — have sought to fold the issue of Afghan refugees into the anti-immigrant stance of the party’s far right. They are criticizing Mr. Biden not simply for leaving the Afghans behind, but for opening the United States up to what they characterized as dangerous foreigners.

“We’ll have terrorists coming across the border,” Mr. McCarthy said last week on a call with a group of bipartisan House members, according to two people who were on the call, where he railed against the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. He also brought up the issue of migrants entering the country along the U.S.-Mexico border in his discussion of Afghans being evacuated.

In fact, the Afghan evacuees fleeing the Taliban’s return are subject to extensive background checks by intelligence officials to receive Special Immigrant Visas, a lengthy and complex process available to those who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. In the past, it has taken years for applications to be processed.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Trump suggested, without evidence, that unvetted Afghans were boarding military flights and that an unknown number of terrorists had already been airlifted out of Afghanistan. The former president has also criticized the evacuation of vetted Afghans from Kabul, arguing that military planes should have been “full of Americans.”

The unusual split is pitting traditional conservatives, who are more inclined to defend those who have sacrificed for America, against the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee wing of the party. And it is a fresh test of Mr. Trump’s power to make Republican leaders fall in line behind him.

“The core divide within the Republican Party, post-Trump, is on immigration,” said Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster. “The Republican Party used to be the party of immigration, and Trump changed all of that.”

The debate highlights the larger ideological divide within the party between “America First” isolationists like Mr. Trump and Republicans who believe maintaining strong alliances and America’s influence abroad benefits the country’s security.

For now, the faction of the Republican Party that supports helping Afghan translators and refugees resettle in the United States is larger than the one warning of any potential dangers that could accompany their resettlement. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 76 percent of Republicans, and 79 of independents, supported efforts to bring Afghans who have helped the U.S. here.

And in two focus groups of Trump voters conducted last week in Georgia and Wyoming by Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, the vast majority said that “we should be taking the interpreters and refugees, with some caveats about proper vetting,” Ms. Longwell said.

She attributed that feeling to a level of patriotism that is lacking when those voters look at migrants crossing the Southern border. “At a gut level, these are people who fought with us in a war,” Ms. Longwell said.


Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

On the issue of Afghan refugees, Mr. McCarthy has walked the same tightrope that he has on other issues, trying to appease the two sides of the party. He has stated publicly that “we owe it to these people, who are our friends and who worked with us, to get them out safely if we can.” But he has also leaned into the nativist, Trumpian side, giving voice to the generalized, inchoate fears about foreigners entering the country.

Traditionally, evangelical groups and Christian charities that wield influence on the right have supported refugee resettlement, prompting elected leaders who are dependent on their support to follow suit. But other lawmakers have echoed the fear and anger Mr. McCarthy expressed on the bipartisan call.

Representative Matt Rosendale, Republican of Montana, warned that once Afghans are resettled in the U.S., “they could bring additional people.”

“The chaos we’re seeing is not an excuse to flood our country with refugees from Afghanistan,” said Mr. Rosendale, who is running for re-election.

And Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, criticized her state’s Republican governor for saying he was open to the state’s accepting refugees.

“Will this bring chain migration too?” she asked on Twitter, referring to family-based immigration. “How much will it cost GA taxpayers in Gov assistance?”

Last month, the House passed a bill to distribute an additional 8,000 visas for translators. Ms. Greene voted against the bill along with other Republicans, including Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama.

Anti-refugee policies have been at the core of Mr. Trump’s nativist appeal since he entered the political arena in 2015 warning that Mexican “rapists” were going to bring drugs and crime into the country. Mr. Trump and his allies supported a travel ban, which suspended immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to applicants from seven countries, five of which had Muslim majorities. Their rallying cry was the construction of a wall along the Southern border to keep migrants out. And they barred the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States.

But some Republicans who in the past have fallen in line with Mr. Trump’s immigration policies are finding themselves on the other side of the Afghan refugee debate.

Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, a onetime moderate who was elected to her party’s No. 3 House post after winning Mr. Trump’s endorsement, signed a letter alongside progressive Democrats calling on Mr. Biden to commit to saving Afghan allies.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, released a statement expressing concern for the Afghan allies being harassed and abused by the Taliban. “President Biden should commit to staying in Afghanistan until we have rescued every American citizen and those Afghans who risked their lives for American troops,” said Mr. Cotton, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And Alyssa Farah, the former communications director in the Trump White House, said helping Afghans who served alongside U.S. forces was a “moral imperative.”

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“To those on the right suggesting they aren’t vetted and we shouldn’t be willing to take them in: they were vetted enough to be co-located with U.S. forces and to put their lives on the line to help them,” Ms. Farah said. “Those opposing relocating refugees to the U.S. are egregiously misreading public sentiment, especially within the Christian community in the U.S.”


Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Stephen Miller, a former policy adviser to Mr. Trump known for hard-right immigration policies, dismissed the split and said he believed his party would ultimately coalesce around opposition to letting Afghans resettle in large numbers across the country.

“There’s an enormous amount of agreement among conservatives that there is no desire among the American public at all for a large-scale resettlement of generalized refugees,” he said.

With right-wing hosts on Fox News like Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson aligning with the anti-refugee wing of the party, Ms. Longwell, the Republican strategist, said that “the open question” was whether Republican sentiment that America was morally obligated to help Afghan allies “diminishes after two weeks.”

“Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” Ms. Ingraham said on her prime-time cable news show last week.

Some Democrats have noticed the fissure among Republicans who have typically fallen in line behind Mr. Trump and are hopeful it could be a sign that the former president’s grip on the party has diminished.

“I have members from the progressive left of the Democratic Party all the way to the most hawkish, all agreeing we need to get vulnerable Afghans out,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, who served as an assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. Mr. Malinowski has been pressing the White House to commit to keeping troops in Kabul until all Americans and Afghan allies are safely evacuated.

“Maybe it’s an opportunity for some of my friends on the other side to make the G.O.P. the party of Reagan, not Trump, when it comes to refugees,” he said.

Other Democrats said it was unrealistic to expect Republicans to break from Mr. Trump’s grip.

“They will toe the line and parrot Trump’s nativism,” said Philippe Reines, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton at the State Department. “When he preaches ‘Afghanistan didn’t send its best,’ his whole temple will say ‘amen.’”

For now, the G.O.P. remains united in capitalizing on Mr. Biden’s first major foreign policy crisis as a way to chip away at the standing of a president who ran on competence.

The America First Policy Institute, a group formed by former top officials in the Trump administration, has already run online ads replaying some of the footage of chaos at the Kabul airport, contrasting it with Mr. Biden’s promise that there would be “no circumstance where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”