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The coming U.S. political fight over accepting refugees from Afghanistan

There's a desire among lawmakers to help some Afghans. But an early split over new refugee visas points to a looming battle over a politically heated issue.
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WASHINGTON — A humanitarian crisis in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is sparking a political debate over what to do about refugees from the war-torn country.

There is some bipartisan agreement to assist Afghans who stood with Americans. But it is unclear how many — and what categories of Afghans — will be able to come to the U.S. or whether the process will be expedited for those in danger.

And while some Republicans have expressed openness to helping resettle U.S. allies in the region, there is sharp and early conservative resistance to Democratic efforts to expand refugee visas, signaling a battle to come over what has been a politically heated issue.

People wait outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17, 2021.
People wait outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17, 2021.Reuters

President Joe Biden wrote a memo Monday granting Secretary of State Antony Blinken an extra $500 million for "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas."

On a day when the world witnessed harrowing images of desperate Afghans appearing to cling to a U.S. airplane in hope of escaping, Biden said in a speech a few hours earlier, "We're also expanding refugee access to cover other vulnerable Afghans who work for our embassy."

A group of 46 senators — 43 Democrats and three Republicans — is calling for a "humanitarian parole category" to allow Afghan women leaders, human rights activists and other public figures to quickly and efficiently relocate to the U.S.

And Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash, the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, is pushing to create more visas for Afghan refugees.

"The United States must ensure refugee processing moves forward without bureaucratic delay, and with special allowances recognizing the difficulty for people to leave Afghanistan," Jayapal said in a statement Tuesday. "In addition to the State Department's work to expedite Special Immigrant Visas, we must also expand these visas and grant Temporary Protected Status to Afghans residing in the United States."

Democrats plan to advance a $3.5 trillion budget next week that would be the vehicle for various Biden priorities, including immigration. A House aide said all options are on the table in terms of the legislative process for aiding refugees.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the U.S. owes it to its friends in Afghanistan to help get them out and resettle them elsewhere.

Image: Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2021.
Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2021.AP

"We need to get them into some country — and some will come here — but countries that are willing to take them," he told reporters, without getting specific about what steps the U.S. should take.

The question of Afghan refugees ties into a larger immigration debate that has riled conservative voters disenchanted with demographic change. Former President Donald Trump sharply cut refugee admissions, and Biden has faced criticism from human rights activists for being slow to rebuild the program.

Stephen Miller, the conservative hard-liner who transformed U.S. immigration policy as an adviser in the Trump White House, said Republicans should reject efforts to expand Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, that would allow Afghan refugees into the U.S.

​​"The correct strategy as a national security and domestic policy matter is to strongly emphasize regional resettlement & regional solutions," Miller said by text message. "The numbers who will want to leave Afghanistan will number in the millions — exponentially more than the remaining numbers who are statutorily-eligible for SIVs.

"There will now be a colossal generalized refugee exodus as we have seen in other conflict-ravaged countries like Syria, Libya and Somalia," he said.

And opposition to taking in Afghans appeared to be brewing among prominent conservative media figures, including Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who sounded the alarm on her show Monday night about "thousands of potentially unvetted refugees" from Afghanistan. (Prospective refugees to the U.S. undergo intensive security vetting and background checks under federal law.)

In a poll taken Friday to Monday, the left-leaning firm Data For Progress asked 1,193 likely voters whether Biden should speed the process of giving immigrant visas to U.S. allies in Afghanistan or whether he should take no additional action to bring them here. Fifty-five percent said Biden should speed the process, while 30 percent said he should take no extra action; 15 percent said they do not know.

The Republican consensus will shape the debate, because Democrats have a wafer-thin majority in the House and need at least 10 Republicans to pass most legislation in the Senate.

"If you fought with Americans, if you risked your lives, you should be eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa program," Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said Tuesday on MSNBC. He added that vetting rules should not be waived for prospective refugees.