The Coming Republican Demonization of Afghan Refugees

The resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. will be a major political flashpoint, it's a fight Dems can - and must- win.

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President of the United States was signing an executive order to begin closing the 9/11 Era prison in Guantanamo Bay. The action marked a significant shift from Obama’s predecessor, but it was neither surprising nor controversial. Closing Gitmo, as it was known, had bipartisan support in Congress. It was essentially a non-issue in the previous year’s presidential campaign. John McCain, Obama’s opponent, had been a vocal supporter of closing the prison because it was inhumane, extra-judicial, and served as a potent recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and others.

There were, of course, a number of complicated logistical and legal hurdles to traverse, but closing Gitmo was a question of when not if.

Flash forward four months; the Senate voted 90-6 to prevent the Obama Administration from closing the prison. The Democratic House of Representatives passed a similar measure with the support of a sizable bloc of Democrats. Congress enacted bans on the closing of Gitmo in every subsequent year of Obama’s presidency.

The story of how Obama’s efforts to close Gitmo were stymied by mass Democratic acquiescence is instructive for what promises to be a major political flashpoint in the midterm elections -- the resettlement of potentially tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the United States.

The Politics

Based on current polling and the statements of many leading Republicans, it seems hard to imagine Afghan refugees being a political lightning rod. It was just last month that the House of Representatives passed a bill to speed up the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process for Afghans by a margin of 407-16. Polls currently show massive support for bringing the Afghans to the United States who helped our efforts. A recent poll from Data for Progress found majority support for expanding the visa program

According to a CBS News/YouGov poll. 81% of Americans support the U.S. government helping to settle “Afghans who worked for U.S. troops and officials in recent years.”

But what is true now may not be true in a few months. When Obama signed that fateful order to close Gitmo, his position was supported 51-47 according to CNN polling. By March of 2010, support for closing Gitmo had dropped to 39%.

Right-Wing nativist Republicans are already licking their chops at the prospect of demagoguing these American allies. The resettlement of Afghans in the United States allows Republicans to participate in their two favorite hobbies: demonizing non-white immigrants and the continued fearmongering of Muslims. These are the driving forces of 21st-century conservatism. The intractable pull of this toxic, racist fearmongering is what led Donald Trump to adopt the Muslim ban during his 2016 campaign. The ban was cruel, self-defeating, legally questionable, and bigoted; but it was also disturbingly popular. A 2017 Politico/Morning Consult found that 6 in 10 voters — and 41% of Democrats — supported the ban.

On a related note, another Politico/Morning Consult poll from earlier this year found that of all of Biden’s early presidential execution actions, lifting the refugee cap from 15,000 to 125,000 was by far the least popular.

Within hours of the fall of Kabul, Stephen Miller, the white supremacist whose very existence invalidated the theory, was pushing Republicans to rally against Biden Administration efforts to resettle Afghan refugees. Tucker Carlson took to the airwaves to fearmonger:

“If history is any guide, and it's always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood. And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we are invaded. It is always the same.”

According to the New York Times, even Kevin McCarthy, who voted to expedite the SIV program only weeks before, told fellow members of Congress that bringing Afghan refugees to the U.S. means:

 “We’ll have terrorists coming across the border.” 

McCarthy’s comment is notable because his only talent is sensing where the Republican base is headed and getting there before he gets left behind.

How it Will Play Out

There are three ways Republicans will square the circle of their initial visa support and their criticism for Biden not evacuating more Afghan translators and others out of the country:

The first approach was previewed by J.D. Vance, the Ivy League-educated venture capitalist running for Senate in Ohio on a platform of performative MAGA-ism. Last week, Vance tweeted:

Vance is gross, but not dumb. His focus on the competence of the vetting allows him to merge two Right-Wing narratives: Muslims are dangerous and Biden is incompetent. He uses this focus to justify his opposition to the resettlement.

The second approach is Miller’s. He argues for resettling these refugees in the region instead of the United States because, in Miller’s words, we will adopt “an immigration policy that has brought the threat of jihadism inside our shores.” In an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, Miller made an argument that you can easily see being in one million ads next year:

“Those who are advocating mass Afghan resettlement in this country are doing so for political, not humanitarian, reasons. It is extraordinarily expensive to resettle a refugee in the United States. They get free health care, they get free education, they get free housing, they get free food, they get cash welfare. For the price that you could resettle refugees in America, you could resettle 10 times more, 15 times more, in their home region -- in this case, primarily in Pakistan. Resettling in America is not about solving a humanitarian crisis. It's about accomplishing an ideological objective to change America.”

This idea is both absurd and impossible. These Afghans helped our country and we promised them help in return, but other countries are not going to accept large numbers of Afghan refugees if the country that started this whole thing refuses to do so.

Finally, Republicans will rely on nativist NIMBY-ism as a political cudgel. Historically, a lot of people — and politicians — are okay with helping refugees as long as that help happens in some other city or state. The downfall of Obama’s efforts to close Gitmo was when the idea went from theory to practical reality. There was a massive political backlash when it came out that the Obama Administration wanted to resettle a small number of Uighurs — Chinese Muslim separatists — in Northern Virginia. It did not matter that the Uighurs were in Gitmo largely by accident, had no real ties to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and had been determined by the Bush Administration to pose no threat to the United States. Members of Congress (from both parties) — even staunch supporters of closing Gitmo — revolted at the idea that any of those prisoners should end up in the United States. Mitch McConnell accused Obama of trying to “bring terrorist-trained detainees into American cities.” A similar dynamic existed when the Obama Administration attempted to hold a trial for alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in New York City. Throughout the Bush years, Democrats were ardent opponents of the military tribunal system set up to try terrorists, but their tune changed as soon as the Article One trials were slated to happen in the United States. There is no place in the country better equipped than New York City to handle the logistical, security, and political challenges that would come from such a high-profile event. But Obama’s Department of Justice backed down when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer came out in opposition. It’s easy to imagine ambitious and cynical Republican governors, and even some vulnerable Democrats, immediately declaring that they will not accept Afghan refugees in their states and districts.

What We Do

I am not arguing that the Biden Administration shouldn’t bring Afghans here. Far from it. The United States has a moral obligation and national security obligation to stand by the people who stood by us. As I often point out in this newsletter, in a world where the Right-Wing dominates the information wars, Democrats don’t have the luxury of choosing which political fights to engage in. We must figure out how to win them. Here are some thoughts on how this can be accomplished:

  1. Engage the Argument: You lose 100% of the arguments you don’t make. Ignoring or turning the other cheek is a suggestion only made by people who haven’t worked in politics since the invention of the Internet. Democrats should respond to these attacks with a two-part argument:

    • An explanation of why bringing these people to America enriches all of us and how bringing them here is consistent with American tradition

    • An explanation of why Republicans are trying to divide and distract Americans (i.e. their highly unpopular corporate agenda, etc.)

  2. Don’t Accept the Premise: When Democrats bucked Obama on closing Gitmo or holding trials in the U.S., they were accepting the premise that putting convicted terrorists in SuperMax prisons was somehow more dangerous than keeping them in Gitmo. This is an absurd notion because we have been keeping terrorists — including Timothy McVeigh — in SuperMax prisons for decades. Bowing to Republican demands for extra-vetting or unusually strict security precautions will strengthen the Republican argument that this group of men, women, and children who helped our troops is inherently dangerous because of their religion. The 2018 election offered a dry-run of sorts. In the waning days of that campaign, Trump — aided by the Right-Wing media ecosystem and an overly credulous political press corp — started harrumphing about a “caravan” of migrants fleeing violence and poverty headed to the Southern border. The Democrats who called out Trump’s game tended to do better than the ones who went into the fetal position and started reciting pablum about border security.

  3. Stick Together: If the Democratic response to racist Republican fearmongering looks anything like it did when Obama was trying to close Gitmo, we will have a full-on political debacle on our hands. Vulnerable Democrats will be under tremendous pressure to bow to the fearmongering. Breaking with the president will make the politics worse, not better. The pushed narrative that Democrats are critical of the Biden Refugee Plan will demoralize Democrats and be red meat for a press corps addicted to stories about Dems in disarray.

  4. Use Vets as Spokespeople: Over the last several weeks, the veterans that served with the Afghan soldiers, interpreters, and others, have offered moving testimonials recounting the courage of our allies and our obligation to them. These veterans — including Republicans that have been highly critical of the Biden Administration’s withdrawal — should be the face of any effort to push back on Republican messaging.

  5. Tell Afghan Stories: As Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes pointed out in a recent episode of Pod Save the World, the stories of heroism by many of these Afghans are incredibly powerful. They risked their lives to save the lives of countless U.S. troops. We must make a concerted effort to share these stories in the local media of the communities in which they settle.

I hope I am wrong and that major Republicans will resist the worst, most racist impulses of their base, but there is nothing in the last few decades to suggest that will happen. All of the incentives within the party — from Trump to Fox to Facebook — push toward racist rage bait as the most likely strategy. Therefore, a big political battle tinged with racism, xenophobia, and post-9/11 Islamophobia is likely around the corner. We need to be ready to fight back and win.