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Afghan refugees aren’t prompting an anti-immigrant backlash — yet

Republicans spent years drumming up concerns about lax vetting and open borders, but there’s bipartisan support — and history — for welcoming Afghan refugees.

(CN) — Aminullah worried about his family. An interpreter and liaison for USAID and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, he was getting threatening calls and letters telling him to stop working with Americans.

As the threats escalated, Aminullah’s life in Afghanistan grew increasingly unsettled. “It was too dangerous for me to drive my little soft-skinned car,” he told Courthouse News in a phone interview. Aminullah’s last name has been redacted to help protect family members still in Afghanistan.

That’s why, in 2016, he said he realized it was time to leave. Using a special immigrant visa (SIV) — a type of visa offered to Afghans who helped U.S. coalition forces — he was able to move to the United States, where he settled in Texas.

The transition wasn’t always easy — Aminullah worked long hours as a cashier before finding work helping other refugees — but at least his family was safe.

Aminullah’s journey to the United States — which involved meticulous planning and a two-week stint in Kabul — shows the complex process of funneling Afghan allies to safety during less complicated times. It also highlights the contrast in scenes from Kabul this week, as the city’s sudden fall to the Taliban prompted stampedes at the airport.

So far, at least 70,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, including Afghans with special immigrant visas or those who qualify for them. The International Rescue Committee says around 300,000 Afghans are in “great danger” and will likely need to be evacuated.

As Afghan refugees arrive in the United States, politicians on both sides of the aisle — including some very conservative Republicans — have rushed to welcome them. 

It’s a sharp departure from the Trump era, when the former president tried to ban travel from Afghanistan with little pushback from his party. It’s also a shift from even further back, to the years after the Vietnam War, which saw dismal levels of support for refugee immigration from the public.

As Afghans land, two ports of entry — Virginia and Texas — offer a window into these shifting political sands.

In Virginia — one of the nation’s most quickly diversifying states, where around 20,000 Afghans are expected to ultimately settle — the state’s Democratic leadership has eagerly welcomed the refugees currently arriving at Dulles Airport near D.C. and Fort Lee outside Richmond. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam tweeted he was “willing to take thousands more.” 

Closer to Richmond, Democratic Congresswoman and former CIA Agent Abigail Spanberger said her office was working overtime to assist Afghans —  similar to those she worked with during her years in the service — in need. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political aisle, Republican Congressman Rob Wittman has also voiced his support for resettling Afghans in America.

“Images of Afghanistan’s collapse, and the brutal horrors inflicted on the Afghan people by the Taliban, weigh heavily upon hearts across the nation,” Wittman said in a statement.

In conservative Texas, where hundreds of Afghan refugees have arrived at Fort Bliss in El Paso, the reception has been almost as warm.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has spent recent months warning that migrants at the border were bringing “carnage,” has, as recently as early 2020, tried unsuccessfully to block refugee resettlement in Texas. But he’s stayed quiet on the issue of Afghans, and his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

While fears of illegal immigration have climbed steeply during the Biden presidency, debates about migration on the southern border don’t translate as neatly to the current Afghan refugee crisis.

Congressional politicians across Texas — from Republican Congressman Michael McCaul to Democratic Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia — have reflected these changing attitudes by welcoming refugees and calling on the federal government to expedite their rescue.

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One reason for that bipartisanship is likely the uniquely high level of support for Afghans who qualify  SIV status. 

Nearly 60% of Americans say the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to help Afghans now trying to leave the country, a recent CBS News poll found. Those views are particularly favorable towards Afghans who “worked for U.S. troops and officials” and “might face punishment from the Taliban,” with both Democrats and Republicans supporting resettlement by large margins.

Ruth Wasem, a professor of public-policy practice at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, studies American attitudes on migration. She says Afghan and Iraqi allies are viewed more favorably by military families and those in “the national security world,” groups that often lean more conservative.

Because SIV recipients are vetted and have immigration paperwork, Wasem says, it’s also harder for politicians to argue they aren’t entering the country in the “right” way.

“They’re legally admitted to the U.S.,” she said. “You cannot call them undocumented, unauthorized [or] whatever kinds of pejorative terms people might use for other asylum seekers.”

Back in Virginia, Fort Pickett, a rural midpoint between Ft. Lee and Dulles, will use its massive facilities to temporarily house Afghans in effort reminiscent of that post-Vietnam influx. 

Billy Coleburn, Mayor of Blackstone, Virginia, for the last 16 years, lives about two miles away from the base. In his 50s, he remembers growing up around Vietnamese people who used Pickett’s facilities as a pass through point before settling in other parts of the country. 

Coleburn says he’s gotten mixed reactions from locals this week about the incoming refugees, but he’s reassured them and argued it’s important for the rural town to reflect the American values SIV recipients helped defend. 

“I’m a small town mayor, I’m being told by military people I trust that these are good people,” he said. “We need to be warm and welcoming.” 

There’s also the broader economic implications the refugee surge can have on the area; Fort Pickett was closed in the 90s for a bit before being taken over and reopened by the National Guard. Coleburn, who describes himself as right-of-center politically, remembers those days as “bleak” and wants those who dismiss Afghan refugees to remember those dark days. 

“Hell yea, I’m excited to see the base utilized because if we do well then it’ll be remembered when and if they reconsider keeping Pickett open,” he argued. 

Houston is also no stranger to an influx of refugees. In the 1970s through 1990s, thousands of Vietnamese settled there, drawn to the warm weather, economic prospects and easy access to fishery jobs on the Gulf Coast.

The first wave of Vietnamese migrants largely got a warm welcome in Houston, according to historian Roy Vu. Many of the migrants were middle-class and well-educated, and many Americans were still feeling “war guilt” about the military failure in Vietnam, Vu wrote in a 2005.

But the second and third waves — which included poorer migrants with less knowledge of the English language and American culture — prompted a greater backlash. The Ku Klux Klan saw a resurgence on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1980s. Still, over the years, Vietnamese migrants became a major part of Houston’s fabric, opening businesses, running for public office and finding their place in “Houston’s multicultural history,” Vu wrote.

Echoes of that history are playing out today. Dario Lipovac, resettlement director at YMCA International Services in Houston, is currently working to help resettle Afghans. With plentiful housing and a cheap cost of living, he also predicts the Bayou City will be a major destination for Afghan refugees, just as it once was for Vietnamese migrants.

Many Houston residents and officials have been “extremely supportive” of Afghan resettlement, he said. He’s been fielding calls from Houstonians eager to help out, including descendants of Vietnamese refugees. Still, he added, “you have the governor saying we don’t want to take any refugees, which is very unfortunate.”

Talk to Afghan refugees like Aminullah and the history of mixed messages on US refugee aid gets even more muddled. Shortly after he arrived in the United States, former President Trump imposed a ban on travel from Afghanistan and several other countries, preventing other Afghans on SIVs from emigrating. Those rules didn’t last, “but at that time, we didn’t know that,” Aminullah said.

Still, as the Taliban retakes the country and some of his family remain sequestered at the Kabul airport, Aminullah faults Biden — not Trump — for the deteriorating situation.

“If President Trump was the president, this was not going to happen,” Aminullah said, lowering his voice as if telling a secret. “That’s what I personally believe.”

Follow Stephen Paulsen and Brad Kutner on Twitter.

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