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As war ends and Afghans arrive, Biden braces for intensifying refugee debate

Five-month-old Aqsa is carried by her father after being evacuated from Kabul. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

The United States is officially out of Afghanistan, but the political debate at home over resettling Afghan refugees is just beginning.

With all U.S. troops withdrawn from Kabul, the White House is braced for intensifying scrutiny over permanently resettling tens of thousands of Afghan allies across the country that up until now had been set aside by the hurried mass evacuation from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Officials with the White House National Security Council have quietly been laying the groundwork with state and local governments for several weeks by presenting their Special Immigrant Visa program as a humanitarian imperative and a moral obligation to those who helped in the U.S. war effort.

“We are talking about our Afghan allies who bravely worked with U.S. service members as translators and in other roles, who stood with us side by side, and who risked their lives to help us,” a White House official told McClatchy. “This is about keeping a promise.”

President Joe Biden in remarks Tuesday defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan praised the efforts that resulted in the evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghans.

“And to everyone who is now offering or who will offer to welcome Afghan allies to their homes around the world, including in America, we thank you,” Biden said.

Signs have emerged early of a political divide that is only expected to grow now that the operation in Afghanistan has come to an end.

Biden enters the conversation already bruised from his management of the pullout from Kabul and sensitive to the politics of refugee resettlement after angering members of his own party last spring over an initial refusal to lift the national refugee cap.

The debate has also underscored a rift within a Republican Party that has otherwise been united in its criticism of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.

While some GOP leaders and officials have embraced helping refugees fleeing the country, other Republicans in Congress and conservatives have raised concerns about whether they will pose security risks, putting pressure on local leaders in their party.

Even if some mayors and governors end up opposing the resettlement of refugees in their communities, they have little practical say in the matter because Afghan arrivals have freedom of movement to choose where to settle once granted legal status in the United States.

The fate of some refugees remains uncertain. The White House has signaled to immigration groups that an unspecified number coming into the country will be on parole under the Immigration and Nationality Act, putting them in legal limbo as they are processed.

Biden has designated the Department of Homeland Security as the lead agency to oversee the vetting, health screening and resettlement process.

A White House official described the screening process to McClatchy as extensive, involving the review of biometric data and vetting from multiple government and law enforcement agencies, including DHS, the Defense Department, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the intelligence community.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week the administration has been working closely with governors and local leaders to emphasize the security protocols that undergird the resettlement program.

“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,” she added. “We can’t stop or prevent that on our own. But we are going to continue to communicate our intensive vetting process, and we’ve been working hard to do that behind the scenes.”

Despite the administration’s public statements, some officials at nongovernmental organizations that help resettle refugees in the United States say they remain skeptical about the White House commitment. They say they still feel burned by Biden’s hesitation in April to raise the national refugee cap, even though the administration eventually reversed itself and in May lifted the cap to 62,500 people from 15,000.

“I don’t think we can take the Biden administration’s word for things on refugee issues at this point, based on the experience with the refugee ceiling,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief, an agency that helps resettle refugees.

Just as galling to Soerens was an evacuation process from Afghanistan that he said took too long to begin, even as groups like his were urging the administration to move faster. U.S. officials said Monday that they still weren’t sure how many Americans and Afghan allies were left behind after the military left the country, though they estimated the number of Americans to be between 100 and 200.

“He got some of them out. But there’s many more who he did not,” Soerens said. “So I appreciate the president’s rhetoric on this, but what we need is firm policies that actually meet the needs of our most vulnerable allies and their neighbors.”

Officials at organizations that help refugees applauded the administration’s decision to have DHS to oversee the resettlement process. But they said the White House should take further action, including determining how the government can provide additional aid for refugees under parole status or eventually offering them a legal avenue to stay in the country long term.

Others are urging the administration to grant Afghans living in the country temporary protected status, a legal designation for foreign nationals from countries afflicted by war or natural disasters that lets them live in the United States.

“They’ve started to turn the wheel here and see it as a way to build consensus with the public on support for Afghan refugees,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “But I think they’ve got to act really quickly and decisively, and I think President Biden has to be seen as the leader of this effort.”

Noorani suggested Biden travel in the coming weeks to a town already receiving refugees, highlighting the administration’s strong support for the process. But he acknowledged that he too worries the White House will back down after his earlier experience.

“When it comes to refugees, my fear is the president will back down after one punch in the jaw from Tucker Carlson,” Noorani said, referring to the conservative Fox News show host. “And Tucker Carlson does not represent the majority of Americans, particularly when it comes to refugees and immigrants.”

Public polling suggests the public is overwhelmingly in favor of welcoming Afghan refugees who assisted the U.S. effort. A recent CBS News/YouGov survey found that 81% of Americans — including 76% of Republicans — support helping those Afghans come to the United States.

Even though they represent a minority of their own party, Republicans who have questioned bringing Afghan refugees to the United States have grown louder in recent days.

Former President Donald Trump has said without evidence that terrorists could be among the refugee population. All Afghan refugees, regardless of their legal status, are being vetted overseas before their arrival, in countries that the White House is calling “lily pads.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, after touring a camp at Fort Bliss where the Biden administration is housing Afghan refugees, last week raised concerns about whether officials were properly vetting them. He said a failure to do so would be “an invitation to terrorist attacks” and that the United States should instead be sending the refugees to “a safe, neutral third country.”

Only a handful of other Republicans have echoed calls for stricter vetting. At least nine GOP governors – including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster – have said they would welcome arrivals in their states.

“Most elected officials and candidates have the view that of course we need to help Afghans that helped us and we need to vet them properly. Those two are not incompatible,” said Curt Anderson, a veteran Republican strategist. “Some politicians and people care more about one than the other. But the common-sense, logical approach is to care about both.”

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