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As Biden ends mission in Afghanistan, a refugee backlash looms at home

President Joe Biden has faced a torrent of criticism for abandoning Afghan partners as their country fell to the Taliban. Now, there is also a looming political controversy over the thousands of Afghans Biden will end up resettling over here.

An increasingly vocal group of Republicans — led by Donald Trump, who made immigration restrictions a hallmark of his presidency — oppose the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S., claiming that they could be dangerous, or will change the make-up of the country. And they plan to make it an issue in next year’s midterm elections, along with broader attacks about Biden’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, said the chaos in Afghanistan should not be “an excuse to flood” the U.S. with refugees.

“We have to make sure that the people that enter into our country want to support our country, not want to attack our country,” Rosendale said in an interview. He said he plans to urge fellow Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to reject refugees housed in his state without proof of vetting.

The White House is moving swiftly to try and tamp down any backlash, and avoid the sort of politicization and outrage that plagued efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in 2015 and created havoc in the federal refugee program.

Administration officials say they have been working behind the scenes to brief local and state leaders on how extensively refugees are vetted before they step foot on American soil. Refugee organizations, which are working with the administration, are doing the same in communities. And both are conducting media outreach to try and dispel myths on the resettlement process.

Biden had planned to meet virtually Thursday with governors who had offered to temporarily house or help resettle Afghans but scrapped the event after 13 U.S. troops were killed in a terrorist bombing in Kabul. The next day, the White House announced Biden named the Department of Homeland Security the lead agency coordinating the relocation of evacuated Afghans to the U.S.

A senior administration official said Afghans “undergo robust security” that includes “biometric and biographic security screenings conducted by our intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals who are working quite literally around the clock” to vet Afghans before they’re allowed in the United States. In many cases, the refugees are taken to a third country, such as Qatar or Kuwait, where they undergo additional screening.

There is little evidence that refugees, generally, lead to rising crime or security threats. Research shows refugees coming to the United States in recent decades committed crimes at a lower rate than the general population and were not responsible for any credible threats to the homeland.

Officials at organizations working with Afghans say some of the refugees already had started the process of securing a visa and were close to being vetted. The background check generally takes 12 to 24 months.

Already, thousands of Afghan refugees have made their way to the United States, settling across the country in large numbers in California, Texas and Virginia, areas that already had existing populations of Afghans.

The State Department had previously identified 19 “welcoming” communities where Afghans could settle based on local support, resources, including house, and cost of living. Only one of those communities has a Republican leader.

Organizations helping refugees and members of Congress say that list has been expanded in the days since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital and Afghans rushed to the airport to evacuate.

Since Aug. 14, the U.S. has helped more than 114,400 people evacuate Afghanistan, including about 5,000 Americans, according to the White House.

Administration officials believe about 80,000 Afghans are eligible to come to the U.S. But the prospect of them coming has sparked a wave of preemptive criticism from certain quarters of conservative circles. Steve Cortes, a former Trump adviser, tweeted an image of a planeload of refugees leaving Afghanistan with the words, “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.” And FOX News host Tucker Carlson declared that “first we invade & then we’re invaded.”

“What I find is that a lot of Congress people or people like Trump think it’s useful to get their base riled up but it’s not really representative of what’s actually happening in the community,” said Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of resettlement, asylum and integration at the International Rescue Committee, working with Afghans. “The lower you go in terms of the communities, the more support you start seeing.Once you get to the level of a mayor, you start seeing a lot more support.”

The White House has acknowledged the politics of bringing refugees to the U.S. will be tricky. “We also know that there are some people in this country, even some in Congress, who may not want to have people from another country come as refugees to the United States. That’s a reality,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who dealt with similar backlash while serving in the State Department during the Obama administration. “We can’t stop or prevent that on our own … And we’re going to continue to convey clearly that this is … part of the fabric of the United States and not back away from that.”

A similar controversy took place six years ago when Republicans fought President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria during that country’s civil war.

Thirty governors, all Republicans except one, tried to ban refugees from that country from entering their states. After the federal government said the state could not stop the refugee resettlement, lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress that would restrict Syrians nationwide.

Obama lashed out at them. “We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic,” he said at the time. “We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.”

But the attacks on refugees fueled right-wing populism both in the U.S. and abroad, serving as one of the pillars of Trump’s successful run for the presidency in 2016.

“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,” Trump wrote in a statement that came this week but echoed those he’s issued in the past. “NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!”

Some refugee organizations say it’s different this year because many refugees are Afghans who helped the U.S. military over the last two decades, along with their families.

“I think that it has tapped into a sentiment or a sense of loyalty,” said Bill Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, working with Afghans. “Loyalty is just an incredibly important trait.”

Only 16 House Republicans voted against a bill to increase special visas for Afghans who assisted the U.S. They did so, in part, because they say they do not trust a Democratic administration to properly vet them. Additionally, some Republican governors, including those leading the deep red state of Arkansas, Utah and Oklahoma, have said they welcome Afghans, in contrast to some of the more Trump-allied figures in the party.

On the other side of the aisle, more than 65 House Democrats are now calling on Biden to increase the annual refugee admissions cap to no less than 200,000 for fiscal year 2022 — up from BIden’s pledge of 125,000 — given the situation in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “To those questioning if it is really our responsibility to provide refuge for those fleeing conflict, persecution, or dire living conditions — yes, it is. In fact, it is not only our responsibility, but it is our greatest strength,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter.

The U.S. is focused on bringing Afghan allies to the U.S. who worked with the military, many as translators, as well as other vulnerable Afghans the U.S. has identified, the senior administration official said. Some are being granted Special Immigrant Visas and others are being granted “humanitarian parole” because they otherwise don’t have legal permission to enter the U.S.

Many refugees are being flown into Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. and housed at designated military bases for no more than 30 days, refugee organizations and Capitol Hill aides say.

The Pentagon had designated four bases — Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin — to help house and process refugees. But more are being added, including Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Dulles Expo Center, an exhibition facility for consumer shows and trade events, was also added, lawmakers say.

At the military bases, refugees receive assistance with their paperwork and orientation on American culture while refugee organizations search for a location to settle them. Refugee organizations say they consult with local officials, school districts, health authorities and faith-based organizations to assess which community may be the best fit.

The new residents also are tested for Covid — and isolated if they test positive. Some are starting to receive a Covid vaccine. A mass vaccination site has been opened at the Dulles Expo Center and a second will open near the Philadelphia International Airport.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose office is trying to help 5,000 Afghans come to the U.S., criticized Republicans for what he called their hypocrisy over the situation in Afghanistan.

“If you believe we had a moral obligation or any kind of obligation in the 20-year struggle in Afghanistan,” he said, “then by extension and logic, you’ve got to accept we have an equally moral obligation to try to protect the people who cooperated with us during that endeavor.”

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