Posted on August 20, 2021

Afghan Refugee Debate Fractures GOP

Marc Caputo, Politico, August 18, 2021

Republicans are united in their belief that President Joe Biden has botched the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But on the question of the thousands of Afghan refugees looking to flee to the United States, a schism has emerged within the party, pitting immigration restrictionists against those who view the resettlement of individuals and families in the U.S. as a moral charge.

With the debate featuring some elements of the party’s familiar divide between the base and the establishment — and former President Donald Trump’s position on the issue unclear — some Republicans see the making of an issue that could reverberate in next year’s primary elections.


In the Trump era, Republicans increasingly have been in lockstep on tighter immigration and refugee policy, particularly regarding the Mexican border. But the issue of Afghan migrants has scrambled that consensus.

The first signs of a rift surfaced last month when Congress expanded special visas for Afghan interpreters and aides who helped with U.S. operations over the years, with a bipartisan coalition of members saying the country couldn’t turn its back on its friends.

But a small group of House Republicans argued that the legislation, called the ALLIES Act, was a Trojan horse that allowed in too many individuals from the war-torn country who weren’t properly vetted. Those criticisms were amplified on social media by various allies and supporters of Trump after the weekend fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

On an issue where the dividing line between the two camps isn’t precise, Trump’s statements to date have provided fodder for each side.

“Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” he said in a Monday statement criticizing the Biden administration’s approach.

Yet on Wednesday, Trump issued a statement that took a different tack. Alongside a tweet featuring a much-viewed photo of Afghans packed into a C-17 plane, Trump wrote, “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!”


Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who also served in the Green Berets, acknowledged that “there are a lot of mixed feelings” among conservatives over accepting more immigrants and refugees.

Waltz said the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and its slow-footed plans to evacuate Afghan allies beforehand have bothered members from both parties, and Republicans overwhelmingly support the idea of refugees who earned the right to come to America, as many Afghan interpreters and aides did. Still, conservatives don’t trust a Democratic administration that has instituted domestic border policies that are anathema to them.


On social media, restrictionist voices have been louder and less measured.

Steve Cortes, a former Trump adviser, tweeted an image of a planeload of refugees leaving Afghanistan and asked his 236,000 followers to “Raise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town? America paid unimaginable costs in Afghanistan because of uniparty globalists who dominated the Bush & Obama administrations.”


Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s former acting Homeland Security secretary, said there are limits to the conventional vetting process because of the political and tribal complexities of Afghanistan.

“There are people who worked for us as translators who hate us,” said Cuccinelli, now a senior fellow with the conservative Center for Renewing America. “There are people working at different times for every side of this conflict. There’s not just us and the Taliban. There are factions, enemies between themselves.”


Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said extensive polling shows the divisions in the GOP are clear, with about 30 percent of the base that’s “unmovable on immigration: Immigrants bad. Stephen Miller right. Tucker Carlson hero.”

But polling also shows that the rest of the GOP base is more moveable on issues of immigration and refugees, depending on the particular topic, Sharry said.