Lawmakers aim to widen Afghan visa effort

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled legislation to broaden a program that provides visas to Afghanis who assisted U.S. forces in that country.

The “Afghan Allies Extension Act” would extend for one fiscal year the 2009 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan civilians who worked with the U.S. government, in roles like interpreters or guides. That effort allows 3,000 visas to be issued to Afghans every year.

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The new measure, sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), would also expand the program to allow Afghans who assisted the International Security Assistance Force, media outlets and non-profit organizations to apply for a visa to the United States.

The proposed bill would authorize an additional 3,000 visas and allow any left over balance from fiscal year 2014 to be carried over. It also would widen eligibility to include family members.

“We have a responsibility to fulfill the obligation to the thousands of civilians who risked their lives to help our country during a time of war,” Shaheen said at a joint press conference on the measure. “It’s not only a moral imperative; it’s a matter of national security.

She said the 2009 legislation “has not been expansive enough to include all of those people who have helped” and warned that failure to extend the SIV program would be a “a dark spot on our reputation aboard and hinder our ability to obtain cooperation in the future.”

Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, urged passage of the legislation saying: “These are the kinds of folks we want in the United States.”

Blumenauer acknowledged that there have been years-long delays in issuing visas through the existing program because it was “more apparent than real” but predicted that the bipartisan bill would bring “daylight to the issue.”

None of the lawmakers mentioned how much the measure would cost, but State Department budget documents show the refugee resettlement benefits given to successful applicants cost about $60 million per 1,000 people.