US role in Afghan resettlement becomes next political battle in fallout from US withdrawal

Long before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the reception of refugees in the United States had become an unstable political issue for the Biden administration, complicated by the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border and opposing pressures from conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats who demanded that Biden follow through on his campaign promise to raise the US refugee ceiling.
Former President Donald Trump, who came to power often using racist rhetoric to describe immigrants, set the stage for this debate during his presidency by drastically reducing the number of refugees the United States was prepared to accept – ultimately reducing the cap to 15,000 for fiscal 2021. He then armed Biden’s more welcoming stance towards refugees during the 2020 campaign, falsely alleging to a gathering at the end of September that Biden would turn Minnesota “into a refugee camp” and open “the floodgates to radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump, still the GOP’s most influential figure, dug into the language on Saturday night alongside his approved candidate for the 2022 state Senate race, Representative Mo Brooks.

Images of desperation from inside Afghanistan are creating complex new dividing lines in this debate as US lawmakers attempt to define the extent of US responsibility to get vulnerable Afghans out of the country and find them a place where to go. There is a nascent division within the Republican Party – fueled in part by anti-immigrant rhetoric on Fox News and from Trump loyalists – that is sure to intensify as more and more Afghans are charged. on planes looking for permanent housing in the United States and other countries. .

Over the past week, many Republican governors and senators have spoken out about the United States’ obligation to assist with the relocation of Afghans – especially those who contributed to the American war effort – including Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, Texas Senator John Cornyn and Senatorial Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told a Kentucky TV station that “we have to take care of them.” Ernst said Iowa KCCI 8 that she and other lawmakers are pushing to get as many at-risk Afghans out as possible “and we would love to have them here in Iowa.” Earlier this month, GOP Utah Senator Mitt Romney tweeted on “our Afghan friends”, calling on Biden to “rush urgently to defend, save, give and extend asylum”.

But some loyal Trump followers – and the former president himself – have spent the past week engaging in a revisionist story about their own role in the Afghan crisis, including their relentless plea for drastic cuts in the total number. refugees accepted by the United States – – a major factor in the current backlog in visa processing.

Former Trump Senior Advisor Stephen Miller tweeted last week that the focus should be “on regional relocation – not mass relocation within the United States.” If the United States is not careful, Miller warned, “all we might have to show for 20 years in Afghanistan is a failed terrorist state, a humanitarian catastrophe and an immigration policy that has brought about the threat of jihadism on our coasts ”.
Former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes tweeted a picture of a plane full of people leaving Afghanistan with the caption, “Raise your hand if you want this plane to land in your town?” ”

Trump first appeared sympathetic to Afghans at risk on Monday, asking why the US military was leaving before civilians “and others who have been good to our country and should be allowed to seek refuge.” But on Wednesday, he released a statement criticizing an image of Afghans leaving the country on a US military plane: “This plane should have been full of Americans. America first!

On Saturday night, Trump suggested that some desperate Afghans deserve US help, but he has not articulated a clear position on how many Afghans should be relocated to the United States. The former president went on to boast of how his administration “has dramatically reduced refugee admissions and kept radical Islamic terrorists out of our country.”

He also criticized Biden for rescinding his travel ban restricting entry to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries. “Biden has revoked this magnificent and wonderful travel ban and increased the resettlement of refugees from the world’s most dangerous countries,” Trump said. “The most dangerous terrorists in the world, they are entering our country now, no problem. ‘Come in, I love having you.’ It’s a sick culture and our country is a disaster, and it is going to die before your eyes if this madness is not stopped. “

Many details remain unclear

Amid questions about whether the United States will expand its special immigrant visa program, Biden – who will again be commenting on the evacuation underway on Sunday afternoon – mostly focused on the immediate crisis to get American citizens and Afghans who helped the American war effort out of Kabul.

In an interview with ABC News Last week, Biden said he believed the United States would need to help evacuate “between 50,000 and 65,000” Afghans in total, a figure that includes the Afghan visa and refugee claimants as well as their families.
Last month, the State Department announced it was expanding access to the U.S. refugee program to some Afghans who did not qualify for the special immigrant visa program, which was created to help Afghans. and Iraqis who participated in the American war effort to resettle in the United States if they were targeted because of this work.
But some aid groups have argued that Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban means the United States must dramatically expand its efforts to help tens of thousands more Afghans at risk – and talks about the number of people who can be accommodated in the United States and other countries are still very fluid.
Fact check: Trump administration officials attempt to rewrite their own history of Afghanistan
In a letter to Biden Last week, the president of Refugees International said the United States should express its willingness to first resettle up to 200,000 Afghan refugees “as part of an international responsibility-sharing effort to rescue and resettle Afghans in danger ”.

Asked about widely varying estimates of how many Afghans will need to be evacuated at a briefing on Friday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US government was still trying to determine the number of people who wish to be resettled and to make contact with these people.

“We’re going to do whatever we can for as long as we can for as many people as we can,” he said. But Price was reluctant to estimate how many Afghans the U.S. government could help before Biden’s self-imposed deadline for the August 31 withdrawal.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin authorized the use of Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to provide temporary housing and support for up to 22,000 special immigrant visa applicants, their families and ” other people at risk, ”Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. noted. The army at Fort Lee in Virginia had already begun to receive Afghan citizens as part of “Operation Allies Refuge”.

At least 26,500 people, including Afghans and foreign nationals, have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the Taliban began their advance on Kabul, according to data analyzed by CNN on Saturday. That total includes 2,500 U.S. citizens who were among the 17,000 people the U.S. has evacuated since Aug. 14, according to Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for regional operations, who briefed the U.S. Pentagon reporters on Saturday.

But the tide of people desperate to leave the country continues, a point underscored by the deaths of seven Afghan civilians in the crash of people near Kabul airport, according to a spokesperson for the UK Defense Ministry.

Afghans at risk were airlifted to Doha, Qatar, which greeted them as they are processed and prepare for the journey to final destinations, and the first flights with evacuees from Afghanistan have arrived at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany – which is building capacity to temporarily accommodate up to 7,500 people by Sunday night. Details on where they will be permanently housed have been much more difficult to come by.

In a statement Friday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked twelve countries – Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and Uzbekistan – for their partnership with United States. to help Americans and others transit “through their territories safely.”

Blinken also said that 13 countries had “made generous offers regarding efforts to relocate Afghans at risk,” including Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda. .

But there is still very little clarity on how coordination will work among these many countries and whether public opinion in the United States could influence Biden and his willingness to accept more Afghans than originally anticipated.

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