The fight to resettle Afghans in the US has just begun
America’s evacuation of Afghanistan is over. But that doesn’t mean the US has fulfilled its obligation to vulnerable Afghans, some of whom are still trapped in their home country.
Even if the decision to withdraw from the country was ultimately the right one, the ensuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is the product of America’s ill-conceived and failed attempts at nation-building. The US therefore has a responsibility to ensure that Afghans facing danger or persecution as the Taliban reassert their vision of religious law can reach safety in the US or in other countries, whether or not they worked alongside American troops.
The US has taken some halting steps toward meeting that obligation. President Joe Biden plans to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans who were able to escape, and has asked Congress to allocate $6.4 billion in emergency funds to support those efforts. Congress is expected to grant that request.
But the actions the US has taken so far should be just the beginning. When it comes to resettlement, Biden and Democrats in Congress have pursued safe, broadly popular policies. But ensuring the safety of all vulnerable Afghans will require doing more than that.
However, in the face of right-wing fearmongering about security and Afghans’ ability to assimilate, it’s not clear that Biden and Democrats in Congress will risk political capital on helping not just the most sympathetic Afghans and those who aided US troops over the past 20 years, but also other at-risk groups, such as women’s rights activists and LGBTQ individuals. Adding to the uncertainty is that Republicans have begun to use the Afghan refugee crisis as a political cudgel against Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, stoking the same anti-immigrant sentiments that catapulted Trump into office in 2016.
In order to fulfill the US’s obligation to Afghans, Democrats will have to weather — and risk losing their seats over — such attacks. Should they choose to do so, they will find they have some cover: So far, the public has largely supported efforts to resettle Afghans in the US. But public support can be transient. It is up to Biden and his fellow Democrats to assume the risk inherent with broadening the refugee effort now, while the public still supports it. It is also necessary to ensure that support endures through what could be a yearslong resettlement process, as more Afghans continue to seek the US’s protection.
The US refugee policy was reshaped during the Syrian civil war
The bipartisan consensus on maintaining a robust refugee resettlement program began to unravel after the Paris terror attacks in late 2015 when suicide bombers — reportedly sanctioned by the Islamic State — killed 130 civilians in explosions and mass shootings throughout the city.
There was speculation that one of the attackers was a refugee, one of 6.6 million Syrians who have been displaced since 2011 by the ongoing civil war. It was later confirmed that all of the perpetrators were citizens of the European Union. But the rumors were enough to spark a panic about Syrian refugees — and start a movement at the state level to cut back US admissions of Syrian refugees and resettlement efforts more broadly.
Governors from at least 31 states, all Republican except for New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, said in 2015 that they no longer wanted their state to take in Syrian refugees. In 2016, Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, tried to prevent refugee resettlement agencies in his state from getting reimbursed for the cost of providing social services to Syrian refugees.
But states didn’t have the legal authority to simply refuse refugees; that’s the prerogative of the federal government. Pence ultimately had to back down after a federal court ruled against his decision to withhold the reimbursements.
Donald Trump, then campaigning for president, stirred up more fear, suggesting that Syrian refugees were raising an army to launch an attack on the US and promising that all of them would be “going back” if he won the election. He said that he would tell Syrian children to their faces that they could not come to the US, speculating that they could be a “Trojan horse.”
When Trump took office, he delivered on his promise to slash refugee admissions from Syria, suspending refugee admissions altogether from January to October 2017. From October 2017 to October 2018, the US admitted only 62 Syrian refugees.
State leaders lined up behind him: The Tennessee legislature, for instance, filed a lawsuit in March 2017 claiming that the federal government was infringing on states’ rights by forcing them to take in refugees (a court challenge that also failed).
The situation with Afghanistan is different in some key ways. Many Afghans seeking refuge in the US worked directly for the US military or US-based organizations, and that’s a group largely perceived as sympathetic. That wasn’t the case with Syrian refugees in 2015.
And in an era when political divisions over immigration policy have never been more fraught, support for welcoming Afghans who aided the 20-year American war effort has so far proved remarkably bipartisan. Polling has shown that 76 percent of Republicans back resettlement efforts — still fewer than Democrats, but a majority nonetheless.
“Right now agencies are getting inundated with calls … from people wanting to step up. The nice thing is it feels bipartisan, at least at this point,” said Alicia Wrenn, senior director for resettlement and integration at the refugee resettlement agency HIAS.
That said, framing Syrian refugees as dangerous paid political dividends for the Republicans involved; it was an effort that helped pave Trump and Pence’s road to the White House, cement GOP control of Congress during the early years of Trump’s administration, and further position the GOP as the party of security. And for some Republicans, it’s a strategy that bears repeating in the face of the Afghan crisis.
The GOP is ready to use the Afghan refugee crisis against Biden
There seems to be a recognition, even among many of the GOP’s immigration hawks, that the US bears some moral responsibility to shepherd Afghans who have worked alongside American soldiers to safety and help them build a new life in the US. All but 16 House Republicans voted for a bill to increase the number of so-called Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) available to Afghans who worked for the US in July.
Yet there is also a small but vocal wing of the party that, despite criticizing Biden’s perceived failure to carry out an orderly evacuation of Afghan allies at first, now denounces the resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghans in the US, seeing a potential opportunity to rile up the base ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
These critics have incorrectly argued that arriving Afghans are not being properly vetted for potential terrorism threats when, in fact, they are required to undergo thorough security screening in third countries prior to getting on a flight to the US, in addition to health screenings and vaccinations.
Former President Trump put out a statement on August 24:
You can be sure the Taliban, who are now in complete control, didn’t allow the best and brightest to board these evacuation flights. Instead, we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world… What a terrible failure. NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!
Others have followed Trump’s lead. GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly warned a bipartisan group of House lawmakers that resettling Afghans in the US would mean “terrorists coming across the border.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance have also thrown doubt on the Biden administration’s vetting procedures.
“Yes, let’s help the Afghans who helped us, but let’s ensure that we’re properly vetting them so that we don’t get a bunch of people who believe they should blow themselves up at a mall because somebody looked at their wife the wrong way,” Vance said in a video posted on Twitter last month. “How do we do it in a way that doesn’t destroy our own sovereignty?”
Their rhetoric echoes Trump’s 2016 playbook, in which he sought to stoke fears not only about terrorism threats from Syrian refugees but also about criminals coming across the southern border from Mexico.
“It definitely surprised me to see stuff like that from some of our representatives,” said Garrett Pearson, director at the refugee resettlement agency World Relief’s North Texas office. “We really try to combat misinformation about refugees. Afghan families are more thoroughly vetted than tourists that come to our country, and they are just looking for a place to find safety and find security.”
Still, while Republican fearmongering isn’t grounded in fact, they are gearing up to invoke Afghan resettlement as a midterm election issue in a bid to retake the House and Senate, where Democrats currently have narrow majorities. And this may make Democrats who recall what a salient issue Syrian immigration was hesitant to back any expansion of the current resettlement program.
Biden has taken steps to bring in more Afghans — but he’s still far from fulfilling the US’s duty
Biden can’t let the GOP politicize refugee resettlement as it did in 2015. The $6.4 billion emergency funding request has not yet passed Congress, and should it be derailed by partisan pressure, it could leave Afghans stranded abroad or facing prolonged stays in US military bases without the resources they need.
Even if the funding does pass, the US still hasn’t fulfilled its obligation to the many Afghans still trapped in their country and in third countries. Biden’s State Department has acknowledged that the majority of SIV applicants were not evacuated and that the system designed to prioritize them for evacuation failed. There could also be tens of thousands of refugees who got out of Afghanistan on their own and now find themselves in neighboring countries without assistance or the ability to make a living. And it’s not clear how many of the Afghans currently at US military bases abroad will actually make it to the US or how long that will take.
The White House has been expectation-setting around how many Afghans the US can aid and absorb. White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged during a briefing in August that there may be millions of Afghans who may want to leave the country, but drew a distinction between them and the much smaller group of roughly 95,000 people the Biden administration has sought to prioritize for resettlement in the US, including 65,000 expected to arrive by the end of September.
Given the US’s role in creating the situation that has led to millions wanting to leave, the federal government must find a way to help. This is within the US’s power: Biden and Democrats in Congress can do more, both abroad and at home. Doing so will require Democrats — even those in swing districts and states, due to the party’s narrow control of Congress — to ignore Republican attacks, and to find the political courage to authorize all the aid that’s needed.
The advocacy group Refugees International has recommended that the administration continue to press for safe passage for Afghans who want to flee Taliban rule, send a US special envoy to Afghanistan, and help the UN increase its humanitarian presence in the country. Biden could enact all of those proposals unilaterally.
Domestically, Biden should raise the refugee admissions ceiling from 62,500 to 200,000 in October, facilitating the resettlement of more Afghan refugees in the US. (Biden had promised to raise the cap to 125,000 earlier this year but hasn’t yet committed to raising it further amid the Afghan refugee crisis.)
Democrats should also push for legislation that would give all Afghans resettled in the US —regardless of which federal program brings them in — access to the same services as refugees, which includes a cash stipend, housing, and job training and placement, among other services. There is already a bipartisan bill recently introduced by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Don Bacon (R-NE) that would accomplish just that. Congress should also offer Afghans a pathway to permanent residence in the US.
But that might require taking positions that make them vulnerable to GOP attacks and enacting policies that go beyond what is popular. With the safety of hundreds of thousands of people on the line, that’s a worthwhile risk. The alternative would be a humanitarian crisis of the US’s own making.