As the U.S. resettles tens of thousands of Afghan refugees following a frenetic military withdrawal that Republicans condemned, their party is still struggling for a unified response.
The Donald Trump-inspired right flank of the party is veering toward an anti-refugee message with nativist undertones, warning that assistance to Afghans fleeing their nation’s fall to the Taliban risks an influx of unvetted new arrivals. And the political oxygen that small but vocal number of Republicans consume is overshadowing colleagues with a more nuanced take on the impending refugee crisis.
A government funding bill passed by the House on Tuesday evening that funds Afghan resettlement programs only exacerbated those tensions. GOP lawmakers argue that the Biden administration botched the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from the country and can’t be trusted to properly vet the tens of thousands of refugees coming into the U.S. — but they’re not on the same page about how widely to open America’s arms to the influx of vulnerable new arrivals.
As a pool of potential refugees grows, “there’s always concerns that a terrorist organization can take advantage of a mass movement of people,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a brief interview. “But I don’t know how that gets better by not providing funding for it.”
The House-passed funding bill includes $6.3 billion in emergency spending to assist Afghans seeking asylum in the U.S. It’s set to stall in the Senate as Democrats labor to avert a government shutdown later this month, raise the federal borrowing limit and fund disaster recovery efforts. Although Republicans opposed the funding bill regardless of the provisions on Afghan refugee resettlement, they still see the Biden administration’s rocky Afghanistan withdrawal as a winning issue and want to use its stumbles to raise questions about whether resettled allies can be properly vetted given the chaos of the U.S. military pullout.
Yet some of that messaging is being undermined by echoes of xenophobia from Republicans who suggest that Afghan refugees should be settled in countries where they can be with people who share the same values.
“I have advocated that we should try and settle these individuals in other countries around Afghanistan that share their values and culture, especially if we can not ensure proper vetting,” freshman Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) tweeted last week in response to 75 Afghan refugees being resettled in his home state. He did not offer details on their status.
In an interview Tuesday, Rosendale doubled down when asked about the criticism being lobbed his way.
“This is nothing more than people’s attempt to try and silence me. I won’t be silenced,” Rosendale said. “It would be better for these folks to be settled in nations around them — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — where they do share their culture where they do share the religion, and everybody involved would be happier.”
Montana’s GOP senator, Steve Daines, disagreed with Rosendale and said recently that “these are refugees that love America … and it’s our duty to ensure that they are allowed a way to get away from the Taliban.”
“It’s fully vetted refugees that were instrumental in helping U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” Daines added in a brief interview on Tuesday. Indeed, Republicans like Daines have emphasized that Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort, and have therefore been thoroughly screened, should be welcomed in the U.S. — in stark contrast to Rosendale and others in the GOP who have long opposed refugee resettlement.
Ironically, Republicans have gotten inadvertent political cover for their Afghan refugee strategy from Democrats, many of whom have already slammed the Biden administration for the fatal upheaval of the U.S. withdrawal.
For example, the State Department has already acknowledged that most Special Immigrant Visa applicants were left behind in Afghanistan when tens of thousands of Afghans who were airlifted from the country as part of a massive evacuation operation in Kabul last month. That’s the population of at-risk Afghans who served as translators and interpreters throughout the two-decade war effort, often at grave personal risk.
The distinction between SIV applicants and non-SIV Afghans has animated the GOP criticisms.
“The more we dig into this, the more we’re starting to see that it looks like the Biden administration just loaded these planes with many who are not vetted, in fact a very small percentage — single digits perhaps — had SIVs,” Daines added. “And that’s a huge problem.”
At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was unable to provide a precise breakdown of the 124,000 people who were evacuated from Afghanistan. Administration officials have said they are still trying to determine who fits into which category — whether it’s American citizens, legal permanent residents, SIV applicants or other groups of asylum seekers.
Despite the bipartisan criticism of the Biden team’s approach in Afghanistan, and a precedent for poor vetting procedures causing refugee-resettlement headaches for past administrations, some Republicans have pushed their critiques further. One powerful House GOP group recently suggested that not only can the Biden administration not be trusted to vet Afghan refugees who are not in the SIV program, but that the Biden administration was seeking a backdoor for Afghans to gain U.S. citizenship.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, advanced that argument last week as the Afghan refugee aid moved closer to a vote. However, the RSC’s initial warnings about Democrats offering refugees a bank-shot path to legal status don’t appear to have panned out in the text of the House-passed funding bill.
For example, a memo circulated by the RSC last week states that the White House requested language that gives the Homeland Security secretary the authority to designate Afghan refugees as legal permanent residents, adding that it would “provide a fast track toward citizenship.”
But the funding bill explicitly states that “nothing in this act shall be interpreted to entitle a person … to lawful permanent resident status.”
Banks, for his part, maintains that the House-passed funding bill “still provides a backdoor path to citizenship that I have little doubt Democrats plan to use” to help Afghan refugees — though he didn’t specify how the funding bill would allow that.
“And it doesn’t change the fact that the [funding bill] still establishes open borders with Taliban-run Afghanistan, allowing anyone coming from Afghanistan to receive welfare benefits and driver’s licenses,” Banks added in a statement. “Conservatives won’t let them pull a fast one on us.”
The Biden administration has repeatedly pushed back at assertions that non-SIV Afghan refugees are not receiving sufficient vetting prior to their arrival, providing details about the level of advanced security screening and affirming that a significant number of refugees undergo an extra layer in a third country. “Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check,” the president said last month.
Some Republicans are quietly concerned that their party’s hardliners are undermining their efforts to hold Biden and his national security team accountable for an evacuation operation that left thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind. In addition, all but 16 House Republicans voted in favor of a bipartisan bill that increased the refugee cap for vulnerable Afghans and eliminated some steps in the exhaustive vetting process in order to speed up the approvals amid the U.S. withdrawal.
The effort, which all Democrats supported, gave the GOP another opportunity to criticize the Biden administration’s military pullout as poorly planned, with lawmakers from both parties contending that the U.S.-led evacuations from Afghanistan should have started months earlier.
“Had the withdrawal been handled in a competent fashion, I don’t think there would be as severe concerns about who was in the country and the vetting procedures,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a Marine veteran. “But if the administration is willing to leave American citizens behind Afghanistan, what confidence do I have that they can establish a competent vetting procedure?”
GOP calls to limit refugee resettlement undeniably complicate that message.
“There’s probably 20,000 more in Afghanistan that are entitled to get out that we didn’t get out and hope to get out. Those people should be easy to identify,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “But it’s these other 70,000 that are just saying, ‘I’m going to be killed by the Taliban.’ They’ve all got stories, and vetting those [people] can be very difficult.”