As Pennsylvania and other states prepare to accept thousands of refugees rescued from Afghanistan, new fault lines are emerging in the Republican Party over whether and how to welcome those who fled the country before the U.S. withdrawal.
Governors of both parties have said their states will welcome Afghans fleeing from the Taliban amid the military pullout.
But some Pennsylvania Republicans running for statewide office are urging President Joe Biden to put on the brakes, arguing that the refugees can’t be sufficiently vetted. Other Republicans are emphasizing the need to welcome those who risked their lives to help American troops.
How the debate unfolds will help show whether the GOP continues to follow the direction of former President Donald Trump or take another course. And it’s playing out in Pennsylvania’s critical open-seat races for U.S. Senate and governor next year.
“We cannot bring 30,000 unvetted Afghan refugees to the United States of America. It’s an irresponsible policy and quite frankly I can’t believe we even have to have this conversation,” Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Sean Parnell told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in mid-August.
No refugees should be admitted until all American citizens have returned from Afghanistan, added Parnell, an Army veteran who served in the war. As many as 200 Americans remain there, officials said this week.
Craig Snyder, an anti-Trump Republican running for Senate, said Parnell was “ignoring the history of how Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Cuban refugees from Castro, Vietnamese refugees from communism,” and others have “proven to be among the most loyal and contributing Americans.”
Snyder called Parnell’s remarks “an assault on American goodness.”
They’re both running to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Afghan evacuees began arriving last week at Philadelphia International Airport, many of them taken to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Wrightstown — one of four military bases designated to shelter Afghan evacuees. Some were expected to stop in Camden for processing.
While the public favors helping Afghans, overall acceptance of migrants in the United States and around the world has dropped in recent years, according to Gallup. Well before Afghanistan began to fall to the Taliban, Biden initially planned to maintain Trump-era caps on refugees. He changed course after facing backlash from Democrats and advocacy groups.
A plurality of voters, 47%, opposed that move, compared with just 37% who supported it, according to a Morning Consult survey in May.
Trump, who implemented restrictionist immigration and refugee policies, said last week without offering evidence that “we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world.”
The U.S.-led airlift evacuated more than 117,000 people out of Afghanistan — not just refugees but also U.S. citizens, recipients of special immigrant visas, and others. It’s unclear how many evacuees will land in this country, where they could eventually gain citizenship.
Biden has said anyone arriving in the U.S. will have undergone a background check.
Pennsylvania Democrats eyeing higher office have generally been less vocal than Republicans about Afghanistan, though Senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia said refugees are welcome.
The refugee issue could also be a factor in Pennsylvania’s race to succeed Wolf, who is term-limited and cannot seek reelection next year.
Lou Barletta, a top Trump ally who built his political career on his opposition to illegal immigration, called the situation in Afghanistan “a ripe opportunity for terrorists seeking to take advantage.”
“Let me be clear: We should take in people who are fleeing the crushing oppression of the Taliban, particularly interpreters, women and girls, and others who helped us with our long mission,” Barletta, a former congressman, wrote in an opinion article in the Bucks County Courier Times on Monday.
“But given the current state of Afghanistan,” he said, “I cannot see how any mechanisms can be in place currently to filter out jihadists bent on America’s destruction.”
State Sen. Dan Laughlin, a moderate Republican from Erie County, said he also wants to make sure refugees are “thoroughly vetted.”
“That’s the minimum I think most of these communities would expect,” said Laughlin, who’s considering a run for governor. “I’m sure we have the resources to do that.”
But he emphasized America’s obligation to help refugees.
“Anyone watching the disastrous pullout of Afghanistan, seeing people so desperate for freedom that they are clinging to the outside of a plane, facing certain death, should understand how bad it is in Afghanistan,” Laughlin said in an interview Tuesday. “And if you have an ounce of humanity you should realize we should help these folks who did make it to America.
“When you have people that have lived under a regime like the Taliban and they actually made it to America,” he said, “I can’t really imagine anyone on the planet that would be more happy to be here.”