WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is united in its criticism of President Joe 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 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 Trump and Rep. 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 Biden not simply for leaving the Afghans behind, but for opening up the United States to what they characterized as dangerous foreigners.
“We’ll have terrorists coming across the border,” 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 Tuesday, 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 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 Trump and Republicans who believe maintaining strong alliances and U.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% 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,” 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,” Longwell said.
On the issue of Afghan refugees, 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 McCarthy expressed on the bipartisan call.
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., 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 Rosendale, who is running for reelection.
And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., 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. Greene voted against the bill along with other Republicans, including Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Mo Brooks of Alabama.
Anti-refugee policies have been at the core of 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. 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 Trump’s immigration policies are finding themselves on the other side of the Afghan refugee debate.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a onetime moderate who was elected to her party’s No. 3 House post after winning Trump’s endorsement, signed a letter alongside progressive Democrats calling on Biden to commit to saving Afghan allies.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., 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 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.”
“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,” Farah said. “Those opposing relocating refugees to the U.S. are egregiously misreading public sentiment, especially within the Christian community in the U.S.”
Stephen Miller, a former policy adviser to 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, 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?” 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 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 Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who served as an assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. 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 GOP 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 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 GOP remains united in capitalizing on 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 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.”