At an Air Force base near Alamogordo, N.M., Afghan evacuees who started arriving in recent days were greeted by military personnel cheering and holding signs that read “We wish you success” and “We are happy to see you.” Hundreds of evangelical church-goers in Phoenix have raised thousands of dollars for Afghan families. A resettlement group in Charlottesville, Va., was so overwhelmed by item donations that they announced a temporary pause and are only accepting gift cards. And in a show of corporate social responsibility, Airbnb said it is planning to offer free temporary housing for 20,000 refugees around the world.
Stories of Americans embracing Afghan refugees have been heartwarming. The risk of a nativist backlash is all too real — but so is the opportunity for this country to rekindle its historic role as a beacon of hope for oppressed groups.
After the Taliban gained control of Kabul last month, thousands of Afghans scrambled to flee from the militant group, which has a history of brutally repressing critics and persecuting women. It is unclear how many of those refugees will eventually land here. Some refugee resettlement agencies in the United States are expecting at least 50,000 Afghans to arrive in the aftermath of the end of America’s longest war; more than 65,000 have been evacuated by the United States to date, of which more than 20,000 have already arrived. Many more Afghans will end up settling in neighboring countries like Pakistan, or in Europe. The United Nations estimates that up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year.
At least at the moment, support for Afghan refugees crosses the political divides that so often paralyze this country, despite a few outliers. At a time of deep polarization, that’s a hopeful sign.
“If we can welcome Afghan refugees across political lines and at the local and national level, we go a long way to strengthening our democracy,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum.
But that’s a big if — because as recent history shows, the arrival of a large number of migrants also provides fertile ground for demagogues and fearmongers. Noorani is working on a book that explores how attacks on immigrants — going back to the Syrian refugee crisis — led to populism, which then “became nativism that became Christian nationalism,” he said. “Soon, leaders of liberal democracies from Europe to the US were trading away the dignity of migrants in order to hold onto power.”
Indeed, as Noorani warned, the far-right opposition will exploit Afghan resettlement not just to attack President Biden, but also to further weaken American democracy itself. “If nativist forces are successful in weaponizing this crisis, the likelihood of political violence, much less upheaval, increases every day,” Noorani said.
Some conservative thinkers understand that Afghan resettlement in the United States is both the morally right thing to do and an opportunity to give back to people who in many cases did so much to help American armed forces during the war. But the latent danger is that Donald Trump and other Republicans will continue to weaponize this refugee and humanitarian crisis for political gain. Let’s not forget it was the former Trump administration that slow-walked visas for Afghan allies.
The right will inevitably raise the specter of “security concerns.” But almost 40,000 Afghans have been already processed for background security checks at US military bases in Europe after the evacuation. Only one has been turned over to authorities for further investigation after a background check turned up serious enough concerns, according to the Defense Department. In general, refugees are some of the most thoroughly vetted people to enter this country.
There is room in America for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees. If the initial show of solidarity and empathy is any guide, the United States can make room for them, and in the process demonstrate that it can still act with collective compassion and resolve. But we must also remain vigilant against nativist forces, because if recent history teaches anything, it’s that those cynical enough to attack and scapegoat refugees for political gain are just waiting for the opportunity.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.