Why the Right Went Quiet on Ukrainian Refugees
And what that reveals about attitudes toward Afghan refugees
Last summer, anti-immigration advocates mobilized in opposition to the resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the United States. “It threatens the national security of the United States,” wrote Stephen Miller, the former top Donald Trump adviser. Miller charged in another tweet that President Joe Biden had “cruelly betrayed his oath of office” by expediting the entry of Afghans fleeing the Taliban without, Miller said, proper vetting. A prominent immigration-restrictionist group issued a report warning of fraud and abuse in the nation’s refugee programs, and immigration hard-liners flooded conservative airwaves throughout the fall to denounce the administration’s plans.
Then came another refugee crisis, this time in Ukraine. In March, Biden said the U.S. would admit up to 100,000 of the millions of Ukrainians who had left their country after the Russian invasion. The announcement was sure to provoke the outrage of the nation’s most ardent immigration foes, whose cries about an influx of refugees from a war-stricken region had barely faded from the news.
Except it didn’t.
Anti-immigration advocates have been far quieter about the Biden administration’s policy toward Ukrainian refugees than they were about its stance toward Afghan refugees. What’s more, the criticism they have leveled has had almost nothing to do with concerns about vetting or national security. Miller, for example, tweeted dozens of dire warnings about Afghan refugees during the summer and fall of 2021. He has also tweeted frequently about Ukraine since the crisis escalated at the beginning of this year, but not a single time about Biden’s plan to accept 100,000 refugees. (Through a spokesperson, he declined an interview request.)
To the groups who resettle refugees in the U.S., the divergent responses from the political right are a stark but familiar example of the long-standing bias against immigrants from poor or predominantly Muslim countries in favor of those from Europe, who are predominantly white. Those attitudes are also reflected in—and might contribute to—public opinion about America’s refugee policy. In a poll conducted last month for The Atlantic by Leger, 58 percent of respondents supported the U.S. accepting refugees from Ukraine, while just 46 percent backed admitting those from Afghanistan. Asked whether the U.S. should admit more refugees from one country than the other, 23 percent of respondents said the U.S. should take more people from Ukraine, while just 4 percent said the U.S. should accept more from Afghanistan, despite America’s two-decade involvement in the war there. Gallup found even broader support for admitting Ukrainian refugees, the highest for any refugee group it has polled about since 1939.
“Americans get a certain amount of compassion fatigue for certain parts of the world that are chronically in turmoil, and no American alive today can ever remember a time of peace in the Middle East,” Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks a reduction in overall immigration to the U.S., told me. “It’s also true that Ukraine has not been viewed routinely as a source of refugees, of political conflict, at least not in the modern world.”
Senior officials with refugee-resettlement groups told me that they haven’t put much stock into the reaction of immigration hard-liners, because Republican governors and leaders in Congress have remained broadly supportive of accepting Afghan refugees. But they have sharply criticized the Biden administration for what they say is unequal treatment of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. “It certainly appears that Ukrainians are receiving special treatment,” Adam Bates, a policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me.
Under its Uniting With Ukraine program, the Biden administration is waiving all fees associated with applying for humanitarian parole. By contrast, IRAP says, the U.S. government charged more than 40,000 applicants from Afghanistan as much as $575 to seek similar protection last summer. The government is also scrapping requirements that Ukrainians submit evidence that they were specifically targeted by the Russian military or President Vladimir Putin, whereas Afghan applicants must provide proof of individualized, targeted violence against them by the Taliban.
The White House declined to comment. The administration has touted its evacuation of more than 82,000 Afghans to the U.S., including many allies who helped the U.S. military during its 20-year war. In both crises, the government has sought to route many applicants around the official refugee and special-immigrant visa programs because they are so backlogged. Officials have said that the humanitarian parole that the U.S. is offering to Ukrainians lasts for only two years, which Bates took as a suggestion that the government assumes many refugees will want to stay in the country only temporarily. I asked him what he thought was the real reason the Biden administration was expediting the process for Ukrainians in ways it did not for Afghans. “This is just speculating,” he cautioned in his reply. “But to me, I do not think that the influence of systemic racism and xenophobia in this country has been limited to just one party in the context of immigration.”
The politics of immigration have bedeviled Biden from his first days in office. Republicans have accused him of countenancing a veritable invasion of the southern border by migrants and asylum seekers, while progressives criticized his decision to keep in place some Trump-administration policies reviled by immigrant advocates. Biden’s critics on the right say his lax handling of the southern border has left the country stretched too thin to respond effectively to the humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine. “The problem is that resettling refugees takes work and money and infrastructure, which has been overwhelmed by all the illegal aliens who were using asylum as a gambit to get past the Border Patrol,” Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, told me.
Many others, however, say the U.S. has both the moral obligation and the capacity to open its doors to those fleeing war and persecution.
Conservatives who have raised alarms about resettling Afghan refugees say the need to vet them is stronger because the American invasion created enemies who could try to sneak into the U.S. to exact revenge. They’ve also warned about the cultural differences between Afghanistan and the U.S., highlighting reports of child trafficking by male evacuees who claim young girls as their brides.
Krikorian has assailed the nation’s refugee policy across the board and told me the U.S. could do more good simply by sending money overseas to help resettle evacuees in countries closer to their homeland. But he had harsher words for the Biden administration’s pledge to admit refugees from Ukraine. “We clearly have more obligation to Afghans than we do to Ukrainians,” Krikorian said. At the same time, he said, individual Afghan refugees presented bigger security and cultural concerns than did Ukrainians. As an example, Krikorian referenced reports of widespread sexual abuse of young boys by members of the Afghan security forces made by members of the U.S. military during the war. “I wouldn’t say because of that, we don’t take Afghans, but we do take Ukrainians,” he said. “But in individual cases, in doing vetting and assessing whether it’s a good idea to bring somebody into the United States, we definitely should take that into consideration.”
Those reports and the stereotypes they feed may help explain why the public voices stronger support for refugees from Ukraine than from Afghanistan, and, on some level, why the government has treated them differently. But to those who work on behalf of refugees, they are beside the point. “Of course, we need to vet immigrants who are coming into the U.S. to make sure that they are not a threat to the American public. But we need to do that consistently,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told me. “Both populations have strong rationales for seeking refuge here in the U.S. We shouldn’t pit one population against the other.”