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Afghan refugees are winning over the GOP's anti-immigrant instincts

The Trump era's blanket rejection of nonwhite new arrivals is showing cracks.

For the last two decades, the Republican Party has been resistant to immigration, driven in part by nativists and white supremacists, including former President Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But the party’s blanket opposition to new nonwhite arrivals under Trump might be shifting as Americans welcome Afghan refugees into their communities.

The New York Times reported Monday that the welcome mat is being rolled out for these evacuees in states led by Democrats and Republicans alike:

In rural Minnesota, an agricultural specialist has been working on visa applications and providing temporary housing for the newcomers, and she has set up an area for halal meat processing on her farm. In California, a group of veterans has sent a welcoming committee to the Sacramento airport to greet every arriving family. In Arkansas, volunteers are signing up to buy groceries, do airport pickups and host families in their homes.

“Thousands of people just fled their homeland with maybe one set of spare clothes,” said Jessica Ginger, 39, of Bentonville, Ark. “They need housing and support, and I can offer both.”

“Even the most right-leaning isolationists within our sphere recognize the level of responsibility that America has to people who sacrificed for the nation’s interest,” Caleb Campbell, the lead pastor at an evangelical church outside Phoenix, told the newspaper.

The Refugee Act of 1980 codified what had been a piecemeal, ad hoc system of welcoming those fleeing conflict or political oppression into the U.S. At the time, refugee admissions were still seen, on the surface at least, as a bipartisan issue — the bill passed the Senate unanimously. But in their 1998 book, “The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform,” James Gimpel and James Edwards argue that by the time the Refugee Act passed, Republicans were on edge:

The partisan division on immigration policy is traceable to policy choices made in the late 1970s. Democrats in Congress responded to the arrival of immigrants and refugees in that period by creating costly resettlement assistance programs, including a new resettlement bureaucracy, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This move introduced a strong element of federal redistribution into the immigration debate. Republicans, therefore, were put in the position of opposing mass immigration because it imposed burdensome costs in the form of welfare and public aid.

The seed was there to link a growing discomfort in the GOP with nonwhite recipients of federal welfare with the immigration rates that had been on the rise since the U.S. abolished the racial immigrant quota system in 1965. Even so, some of the highest refugee admissions levels that the country has ever seen came under two Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 presidential campaign stayed silent during the debate over the refugee bill, and his successor, George H.W. Bush.

Reagan was tasked with implementing the first test of the Refugee Act, with large numbers of Cubans and Haitians arriving in Florida. More refugees were still coming in from Southeast Asia, as well, leading the U.S. to accept over 450,00 refugees from 1980 to 1982. Bush was faced with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, prompting another spike in refugee arrivals, averaging over 100,000 per year for his term in the White House.

Even when public opposition to refugees was high, refugee policy initially wasn’t seen as a partisan issue for many lawmakers or presidential administrations. Anti-communism especially kept the nativists in the GOP in check, as did appeals to America’s origins. “Our nation is a nation of immigrants,” Reagan said in an oft-quoted 1981 statement. “More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”

Even when public opposition to refugees was high, refugee policy initially wasn’t seen as a partisan issue for many lawmakers or presidential administrations

(It’s less commonly remembered that Reagan then pivoted in the next line to warning: “No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.”)

Already, then, an inability to separate refugees fleeing persecution from economic immigrants was breaking down the bipartisan accord over the former. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, Republican agitators have stopped using the Soviets as bogeymen and have played up fears of Muslim terrorists’ threatening security and undocumented Hispanic immigrants’ threatening economic prosperity.

Some are still trying to exploit those fears now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as recently as Saturday tried to weave the Afghan crisis with his usual nonsense about terrorists on the southern border.

Trump, meanwhile, has tried to have it both ways, by condemning the Biden administration for leaving behind Afghan allies and for prioritizing their evacuations over those of Americans. But on the whole, the GOP has been divided, with the majority coming out on the side of Afghan evacuees. A CBS News/YouGov poll from late August found that 76 percent of Republicans surveyed — and 79 percent of Trump voters — supported helping Afghans who aided the U.S. get out of Afghanistan rather than leaving them at risk of being punished or killed by the Taliban.

Public opinion could shift in the future, especially if a second round of Afghan refugees does make it to the U.S. on top of the 50,000 Afghans the government estimates will arrive this month. And the Tucker Carlsons of the world won’t stop trying to convince their viewers and readers that any increase in refugees is a threat to America’s national fabric. Which means that now is the time to make sure that those 31,000 who have made it to the U.S. and those who follow have the best possible opportunity for the future.

Like Vietnamese refugees fleeing Saigon, those arriving in the U.S. who haven’t been granted special immigrant visas are doing so under parole designation from the Department of Homeland Security. That’s just a temporary authorization to be in the U.S., though, and not the same as being designated a refugee. There’s room for Congress to follow in the footsteps of 1966’s Cuban Adjustment Act and other past legislation to provide an actual path for such refugees to become permanent residents, if not citizens.

Already bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House to ensure that, at a bare minimum, these new arrivals are “eligible for the reception and placement services that would equip them with the basic money and resources to resettle themselves and their families into the United States.” Congress has a very full plate over the next few months. But the clock is ticking both politically and legally to give these men, women and children the stability they lacked when they were rushed from Afghanistan to the promise of safety in America.