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Support For Resettling Afghan Refugees In The U.S. Is Broad — But Has Limits

Afghan refugees wait to be processed Sept. 8 inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Olivier Douliery
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Afghan refugees wait to be processed Sept. 8 inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Across the political spectrum, a broad majority of Americans say they favor welcoming Afghan allies to the U.S. — driven in part by an outpouring of support from groups that generally favor tougher restrictions on immigration.

More than seven out of 10 Americans support resettling Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or military, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. That number includes strong majorities of Republicans, as well as white and rural voters, who are less likely to support admitting refugees and migrants from other parts of the world.

"We have an obligation to these [Aghan] people, to get them help, to get them to safety," said poll respondent Francesco Logreco, a Republican from St. Clair Shores, Mich., in a follow-up interview.

Logreco says illegal immigration is a "massive problem." And the 23-year old has limited sympathy for Central American migrants fleeing from cartels and corruption because the U.S. is not at war with those countries.

But Logreco says Afghan nationals who opposed the Taliban are different.

"They love America. They fought for us. They were with us the whole time. True allies to the West," he said.

Most Americans see a "duty" to help

The poll was conducted between Sept. 1 and 2, just days after the end of the U.S. airlift out of Kabul. It found that nearly three in four Americans, including 73% of Republicans, favor resettling Afghans who worked with the U.S. government. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents support resettling Afghans who fear repression or persecution from the Taliban.

That's a remarkable contrast with past refugee crises, when Americans were more ambivalent about whether to open the nation's doors to those fleeing civil war in Syria, or violence and persecution in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. And it suggests that there's something exceptional about the plight of Afghan nationals that resonates with many Americans.

"There's almost this ability to separate duty to help those in Afghanistan who helped our military — separating that from how you feel about immigration and welcoming migrants, full stop," said Mallory Newall, a vice president at Ipsos. "Welcoming Afghan refugees is OK and something we should do. But welcoming those who are fleeing violence in other areas of the world, namely Syria and Libya, the African continent and Central America — that's not a priority."

Concerns about security vetting and cost

But the poll also suggests that support for fleeing Afghan nationals has its limits.

"I have sympathy for the Afghans," said Brian Barnes, a Republican from Greenwood, Ind., in a follow-up interview. Barnes says he supports resettling those who worked directly with U.S. forces. "I believe definitely they should be able to become American citizens and bring their family," he said.

At the same time, the 63-year-old Barnes says he's not sure that everyone who fled Afghanistan during the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces should be allowed in.

U.S. officials say they airlifted more than 123,000 people out of Kabul — though they concede that many Afghans who worked directly with U.S. forces, and applied for Special Immigrant Visas, were not among them.

Biden administration officials talk instead about the number of "at-risk Afghans" who've been evacuated. They say there are more than 50,000 of them on military bases in the U.S. and around the world. The Department of Homeland Security says those Afghans must clear rigorous security vetting before they're allowed to resettle in the U.S.

"It just concerns me, you know, because they can say they're being vetted, but we don't know that," Barnes said. "I just do not trust this administration."

This week, the Biden administration asked Congress for $6.4 billion to support vetting and resettlement of Afghans.

Among poll respondents who oppose resettling Afghan refugees in the U.S., nearly two-thirds agreed that "the U.S. can't afford to support more refugees," while more than half worried that ISIS or al-Qaida might be using resettlement "as a way to sneak into the U.S."

Underlying attitudes about immigration have not changed

Despite bipartisan agreement about Afghan refugees, the poll shows that deep partisan divisions persist when it comes to immigration policy. For example, fewer than half of Republicans support admitting migrants from Africa, Syria and Libya, or Central America, compared with more than 70% of Democrats.

"Any time we've had a situation where there were refugees from other countries that needed our assistance, I've always felt that we should open the doors," said Schameka Earl, a Democratic voter from Charlotte, N.C., in a follow-up interview. "And that's just simply because the United States of America is a country of immigrants. So how dare we turn away an immigrant that might possibly need us?"

GOP voters are also more likely to support restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

More than 40% of Republicans agreed that migrants crossing the southern border are "responsible for much of the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.," even though doctors say infection rates among migrants are similar to those of anyone else in the region. A majority of Democrats disagreed that migrants are driving the spread of COVID.

As congressional Democrats work to finalize legislation that could provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, the poll found that support for that policy has remained largely stable since our previous NPR/Ipsos poll in the spring.

More than seven in 10 Americans support creating a legal way for farmworkers and other essential workers to become citizens. Broad majorities also favor a pathway for "Dreamers" who were brought to the country illegally as children (62%), as well as those with temporary legal status who fled countries suffering from war or natural disasters (67%).

The survey sampled 1,299 adults from the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii who were interviewed online in English. The poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.