GOP divide widens amid growing hostility towards Afghan refugees

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WASHINGTON – As the United States rushes to evacuate Americans and their allies from chaos in Afghanistan, growing numbers of Republicans wonder why the United States should welcome Afghan citizens who have worked alongside the Americans, further exacerbating divisions within the party as we approach the mid-term of next year. elections.

Just over a week ago, with the astonishing Taliban takeover of Afghanistan still in the spotlight, former President Donald Trump issued a statement saying that “civilians and others who have been good to our country… should be allowed to seek refuge ”. But in recent days, he has turned to warning of the perceived dangers posed by those who desperately try to flee their country before a month-end deadline.

“How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?” ” He asked.

As Republicans address scathing criticism of Biden during his first major foreign policy crisis, some turn to the nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric perfected by Trump during his four years in office. This causes consternation among other party members who think the United States should be careful of those who have helped Americans over the past two decades.

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“I think these false accounts that this is a group of terrorists are correct – they are completely unfounded actually,” said Olivia Troye, former White House homeland security adviser who is currently director. of the Republican Accountability Project. “There is no basis for this in terms of the intelligence world and national security.”

Neil Newhouse, a former Republican pollster, said the rhetoric reflects “a general and global increase” in concern in the country about the risk of terrorist threats after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban – not just short of it. run from those who may not have been properly vetted, but a year or two later.

“There is just the feeling that we are less secure as a country because of it,” he said.

The Biden administration has stressed that everyone allowed to come to the United States is carefully vetted by officials working around the clock. But refugees have become an emerging flashpoint, with Trump and his supporters loudly demanding that Americans are given priority for the evacuation and warn of the potential dangers posed by rescuing Afghans in one of the largest civilian airlift operations in the world.

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This discussion escalated Thursday after a suicide bombing ravaged crowds at Kabul airport, killing 13 U.S. servicemen and well over 150 Afghans.

“How many US servicemen have to die to evacuate uncontrolled refugees?” tweeted Rep Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. “Get the American citizens out and bring our troops home. “

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Friday visited the Doña Ana Range complex in Fort Bliss, where many refugees will be staying, and then tweeted that the United States “should rescue the Afghans who have helped the United States military, but they should go to a neutral and safe third country.

“They should NOT come to the United States without a FULL security check,” he said.

This followed a call on Wednesday from Kentucky Representative James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, for the administration to brief lawmakers on their efforts to control Afghan refugees and deter terrorists to enter the country.

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“In the chaotic situation left as a result of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, we are particularly concerned that terrorists and others who wish to harm the United States may seek to infiltrate the country in disguise. in those who provided assistance to coalition forces in Afghanistan, ”he wrote in letters to Secretaries of State and Homeland Security.

Still others, including Republican governors and members of Congress, have taken a different stand, welcoming refugees to their states and working hard to help those who try to flee. On Capitol Hill, the effort to help Afghan friends and voters’ families is the rare endeavor that consumes the legislative offices of members of both parties.

The United States has evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan since the airlift began on August 14, including more than 5,100 American citizens. While the administration’s explicitly stated priority is to evacuate Americans, the numbers reflect the demographics of those attempting to flee.

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US officials believe that around 500 US citizens who wish to leave Afghanistan remain in the country; we think others want to stay. And many Afghans, including those who have served as American interpreters and fixers and in other supportive capacities, are desperate to escape, fearing that they will be prime targets for Taliban retaliation once. the United States gone.

But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from accusing the Biden administration of not putting Americans first.

“In fact, we prioritize Afghan refugees over our own citizens,” said Republican JD Vance, a candidate for the Ohio Senate and who has made repeated television appearances to denounce the approach of the administration.

On Fox Business Network, he claimed, without evidence, that the United States had “no knowledge” of 90% of the evacuees and said some showed up in large terrorist databases.

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“They put Americans last in every way, but Americans pay for everything,” echoed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Who rose to prominence with inflammatory statements.

Trump and his former political adviser Stephen Miller, as well as conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson, went even further, using the same anti-immigrant language that was hallmark of Trump’s 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination. .

“You can be sure that the Taliban, who are now in full control, did not allow the best and the brightest to board these evacuation flights,” Trump said. “Instead, we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world.

Carlson warned of Afghans invading America.

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The rhetoric points to the transformation of a party once led by neoconservatives who championed interventionist nation-building policies and invaded Afghanistan – followed by Iraq – almost 20 years ago.

But not all Republicans are on board.

Senator Thom Tillis, RN.C., whose office has worked tirelessly to save the “countless” Afghans who he says deserve to be evacuated, berated his party members citing “terrorist” rhetoric.

“I would say they have to do their homework,” he said. “When you talk to the people we spoke with, when you look at their service records … when you recognize that they sleep in the same tents, they carry guns together, they participated in real firefights, how dare we ask ourselves whether or not they deserve to come to this country or to a safe third country? ”

“We’re not just talking about walking the streets and picking people,” Tillis added. “We know these people. We know who their children are. We know what their record of service was. And quite frankly, someone who takes that position, every time they do, is insulting a soldier who considers these people to be brothers and sisters. “

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Many Afghans seeking to come to the United States do so under the special immigrant visa program designed specifically for people who have worked with American forces. Adam Bates, policy adviser to the International Refugee Assistance Project, said that because of their work, these people were largely vetted by US authorities before applying for the program – and are again largely vetted “by a wide range. from federal agencies “before the visas are granted.

Troye, who has spent a lot of time on the ground in Afghanistan over the years, said the Americans have become extremely close to the Afghans they have served with.

“These people have become like family to many of us,” she said. “It’s really shameful to see some of these Republicans talking like this about people who really risked their lives to help us, who were really our allies on the ground.”

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Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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