If the House does not act this week, thousands of our Afghan allies will yet again be imperiled. The State Department is now out of life-saving visas for those Afghans who risked everything to aid American troops in combat. State has requested that Congress, in the Continuing Resolution that it must pass before the end of the month, allocate a small number of additional visas so that the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program can continue providing a lifeline for those under threat who helped us in our time of need. This is not impossible; bipartisan support has saved this program in the past. But to ensure a permanent fix, Congress needs to act again--now.
In a rare show of bipartisanship shortly before its recess, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to grant an additional 1,000 visas to Afghan interpreters who worked for the U.S. government and now desperately seek security in the United States. This was a critical step in protecting those who protected us, and in keeping our promises to them, but it is just a temporary fix. There are still thousands of interpreters waiting for their name to be called—and many of them are on terrorists’ death lists.
In 2006, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for interpreters and other allies who helped the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we draw down our presence in Afghanistan, these allies and their families have increasingly become targets of the Taliban and insurgents. In Iraq too, the Iraqis who served alongside our servicemembers are frequently targeted. The SIV program is the lifeline for those who risked their lives for the U.S. missions.
While serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw firsthand the courageous and selfless actions taken by some of the thousands of interpreters who put their lives and their families’ lives on the line every day to keep me and my fellow servicemembers safe.
Over the past year, the State Department and other agencies have streamlined SIV processing and have reduced wait times. However, 6,000 Afghan allies remain stuck in various stages of the visa process and are increasingly vulnerable in Afghanistan. The system continues to face numerous challenges and remains complicated, requiring extensive paperwork, interagency coordination, and thorough background checks. We cannot let red tape cause America to abandon friends who bled alongside our troops just when they need us most.
Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken We have a plan that prioritizes Afghanistan's women — we're just not using it Scott Brown's wife files to run for Congress MORE (D-N.H.) has led ongoing efforts with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden Biden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech MORE (R-Ariz.) to extend and reform the SIV programs. Their bipartisan leadership prevented the Iraq program from expiring last year and improved access to both the Iraq and Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa programs. The Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act, introduced by Shaheen and McCain in May of this year, would extend the Afghan program for another fiscal year and institute other important fixes, including the authorization of an additional 3,000 visas and expanded eligibility, so that the America can keep its promise to those who served alongside us overseas. Unfortunately, this most recent effort was only a temporary patch through the end of this month.
The SIV program demands our action because we, as a country, made a promise we must keep to those who stood beside us on the battlefield. When we ask others to fight alongside us on the basis of shared values, they must know that we understand the risk they take in opposing extremism. They must know that we’ll have their back—especially when they need us the most.
Put simply, American credibility matters. Failing to deliver on the SIV program would be a direct threat to our reputation abroad, the safety of our allies, and our long-term national security. It would also be a stain on our national honor.
Since creating this program, Congress has shown that this issue is beyond partisanship. All can agree that those who place themselves and their families at risk for our missions deserve our help in return. Continuing the SIV program is essential to providing safe passage to the new beginning in America that these men and women rightfully earned. Even to a Congress marred by gridlock and frustration on all sides, our moral obligation here is clear: fixing the SIV program is both critical to our national security and the right thing to do.
Breen is a former captain in the U.S. Army, a co-founder and a Board Member of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, and the executive director of the Truman National Security Project.