(Bloomberg) — Republicans who criticized President Joe Biden for stranding those who helped the U.S. are now taking issue with his effort to bring them into the country.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, tweeted that the U.S. should “rescue Afghans who’ve assisted the US military, but they should go to a neutral & safe third country. They should NOT come to US w/o a FULL security vetting.”
JD Vance, a Senate candidate in Ohio, said in a video posted on Twitter. “Yes, let’s help the Afghans who helped us, but let’s ensure that we’re properly vetting them,” adding, “How do we do it in a way that doesn’t destroy our own sovereignty.”
Looking to keep the troubled exit from Afghanistan alive in voters’ minds once the 2022 campaigns heat up, the conservative candidates are using the same strategy that former President Donald Trump used successfully in his 2016 campaign — play on voters’ fears of criminal or terrorist immigrants and bank that those fears will outlast Americans’ sympathy for the evacuees’ plight.
While Trump, whose views Republican candidates watch closely, was initially supportive of welcoming Afghans who worked with the U.S, he quickly pivoted to say he was skeptical that those coming had been properly vetted for ties to extremist groups.
“In addition to the southern border, with millions of unvetted people pouring in, we now have tens of thousands of totally unvetted Afghans, who many say are not the ones that should have come in,” Trump said in a statement on Friday. “How many terrorists are among them?”
Polling, however, shows that voters largely support welcoming the Afghans.
An Economist/YouGov poll taken earlier this week showed 70% of registered voters — including 62% of Trump voters — said the U.S. should offer asylum to Afghan refugees who helped American forces in Afghanistan.
Claire Adida, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego who studies attitudes toward refugees, said that Americans are much more supportive of admitting those who put themselves at risk helping the U.S. in foreign conflicts.
“There seems to be a bipartisan consensus that these are our allies — people who worked for us and helped us — and we can’t let them down,” she said. “I think that really resonates across the political spectrum. It’s a much different kind of narrative than the vulnerable refugee who needs our help.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week that Afghans coming to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program face a months-long, 14-step review process, adding that more than 76,000 Afghans have been admitted under the program over the years.
The State Department plans to spend thousands of dollars per evacuee to help with housing, food, other necessities and enrolling children in school.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday that the U.S. has admitted about 40,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan — 31,600 of whom are special immigrant visa holders, special immigrant visa applicants, or other vulnerable Afghan nationals arriving under humanitarian parole.
Republican candidates seized upon that influx. Keeping the troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan alive into the 2022 midterms could help the GOP regain control of Congress. It needs to only flip three seats in the House and one in the Senate to become the majority party again on Capitol Hill.
“These planes are now being emptied into Cleveland, Toledo and other places in the heart of America,” he tweeted Friday. “To protect our kids, our communities and our Judeo-Christian way of life, we must FIGHT this with all our might.”
In Virginia, which will elect a new governor this November, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin said the state should accept those who worked as translators and helped U.S. military forces, but he echoed calls for more thorough vetting.
“We have Afghans that have in fact supported American troops, they’ve gone shoulder to shoulder with us, particularly the translators and the interpreters, and we have to make room for them, but we must vet — we must vet clearly, we must vet thoroughly,” he said in an interview with radio station WLNI on Aug. 31.
At the same time, Republican governors have generally hewed more closely to public opinion, with both moderates such as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and conservatives such as Henry McMaster in South Carolina saying that they welcomed Afghans who worked with the U.S. to their states.
“For those who worked with our troops, who helped save the lives of our troops and our people and now their lives are in jeopardy, there’s no doubt about that. The answer is ‘yes,’ we will return the favor,” McMaster told reporters in Columbia on Aug. 31, according to the Post and Courier.
Republican Governor Spencer Cox of Utah wrote Biden on Aug. 17 noting his state was settled by Mormons fleeing religious discrimination. He said Utah is “eager to continue that practice” and help with resettlement of Afghan refugees.
Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University who’s studied the Republican Party said going against Trump’s nativist leanings is a difficult road for Republican candidates in the current political climate.
Just as Republicans who opposed Trump’s hard-line immigration rhetoric and restrictions on travel from some predominantly Muslim countries faced his wrath, GOP candidates not following his lead on criticizing Afghan refugee resettlement will struggle.
“Trump and his supporters are the Republican Party right now, so you have go against your own red base,” Zelizer said.