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Americans Have A Long History Of Opposing Refugees. But Most Support Afghan Asylum Seekers.

It didn’t take long for prominent voices on the political right to begin stoking fears about Afghan citizens fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of the country and coming to the United States.

Former President Donald Trump inaccurately claimed that there’s “NO VETTING” of these evacuees, asking, “How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?” “Hillbilly Elegy” author and 2022 Ohio senatorial candidate J.D. Vance similarly suggested that the ostensibly insufficient screening of Afghans would result in the U.S. harboring “a bunch of people who believe they should blow themselves up in a mall because someone looked at their wife the wrong way.” Afghan refugees have been frequently depicted as economic, cultural and national security threats on Fox News too, with Tucker Carlson even branding efforts to relocate Afghan evacuees in the U.S. as “Operation Change America Forever.” 

This fear-mongering is neither surprising nor new. There’s a long history of politicians erroneously representing refugees as economic burdens who pose cultural and/or national security threats to the U.S. In fact, the same arguments against Afghan asylum seekers were also deployed in 2015 and 2016 against resettling Syrian refugees displaced by their country’s civil war. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump regularly railed against the refugee policies of then-President Barack Obama’s administration, proclaiming at the Republican National Convention, “We don’t want them in our country.” Trump’s administration made this point even clearer, banning Syrian refugees and cutting the total number of refugees allowed in the U.S. by more than 80 percent.

Those policies reflect the historically strong strain of anti-asylum sentiment in American public opinion. Searching through the Roper Center’s database of polling questions on “refugees” since the 1930s reveals that Americans have rarely supported asylum for forcibly displaced migrants seeking safe-haven in the U.S.1 Nearly two-thirds opposed admitting 10,000 Jewish children into the U.S., who were fleeing Nazism in 1939. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust were further exposed in the post-war period, only 27 percent of respondents in a 1946 Gallup poll supported a proposed “plan to require each nation to take in a given number of Jewish and other European refugees,” compared with 59 percent who disapproved.

The public’s opposition to resettling refugees in the U.S. persisted throughout the 20th century. Polling from the late 1970s, for example, consistently showed that most Americans opposed admitting thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War’s aftermath. While support can vary by question-wording, majorities also opposed accepting Hungarian refugees in the 1950s, Cuban refugees in the 1980s and Haitian refugees in the 1990s. The same pattern once again emerged in 2015, when polls showed that few Americans wanted to take in refugees escaping the civil war in Syria.

But public opinion on immigration issues has changed a lot since then. Americans generally became more supportive of immigration in response to the Trump administration’s restrictive policies — a well-documented dynamic in U.S. politics where public opinion tends to move against the president’s positions. As part of that overall shift, Americans’ views of refugees shifted in the same direction. Support for accepting Muslim refugees from Syria increased in The Economist/YouGovsurveys from 38 percent in November 2015 to 52 percent in April 2017. Quinnipiac University Poll showed a similar 12-point increase in support for admitting Syrian refugees over the same 16-month time period (43 percent to 55 percent respectively); and the share of Americans saying the “U.S. has a responsibility to accept Syrian refugees” in Pew Research Center polling rose from 40 percent in October 2016 to 47 in February 2017.

The growing public support for refugees in the Trump era extended beyond the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who said that taking in civilian refugees who are trying to escape violence should be a very or somewhat important goal of U.S. immigration policy increased by double digits in Pew polls fielded in December 2016 and September 2019 (61 percent to 72 percent, respectively). Meanwhile, the share of HuffPost/YouGov respondents who said “the U.S. does not have a responsibility to take in refugees fleeing from other countries” decreased from 54 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. And 2019 polls conducted by Gallup, CNN and Fox News all showed majority support for accepting Central American refugees into the U.S.

The more welcoming context is one important reason why we’re now seeing stronger support for Afghan refugees than previous asylum seekers. Despite that high-profile fear-mongering, early polling on the issue shows relatively weak opposition to resettling Afghans in the U.S. The majority of voters in an AugustMorning Consult poll supported relocating Afghan refugees in the U.S., while just one-third were opposed. Support was even stronger in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, where 68 percent strongly or somewhat favored the U.S. taking in Afghan refugees after security screenings. And Americans are especially supportive of Afghans who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war, with a whopping 81-percent of those surveyed by YouGov/CBS News saying we should help Afghans who worked with American troops come to the U.S.

That strong sense of obligation toward Afghans who’ve helped us has also sharply divided Republican politicians. While some of the loudest conservative voices in the country are now stoking fears of Afghan refugees, many Republican politicians have argued that we have a moral obligation to accept them into the U.S. — especially Afghans who directly helped American efforts over the past two decades. This includes several Republican governors who’ve already agreed to accept Afghan refugees into their states.  

The schism within the GOP makes it all the more difficult to mobilize public opinion against Afghan refugees. When party leaders are unified on an issue, their supporters tend to adopt those same positions. But the mixed messages on this issue make it difficult to galvanize the same unified opposition that rank-and-file Republicans have increasingly shown toward President Biden’s other immigration policies. This could change, of course, as moderate voices in the GOP have often been drowned out by the Trumpian wing of the party, and, as mentioned, public opinion tends to move against the president’s positions — it’s Biden, not Trump, in the White House now.

But so long as several prominent Republicans feel obliged to accept Afghan evacuees, it will be harder for right-wing fear-mongering to change the country’s consistently strong support for Afghan refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.

Footnotes

  1. The one exception is when 66 percent supported the Clinton administration’s decision to bring a relatively small number of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo to the U.S. in 1999.

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”

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