Senate defense bill omits additional visas for Afghan interpreters

Senate defense bill omits additional visas for Afghan interpreters
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The Senate Armed Services Committee's 2017 defense policy bill set to be unveiled on Thursday will not include additional special immigration visas for Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. troops during the war, according to a congressional source. 

"It appears the Senate Armed Services Committee will not authorize in the [National Defense Authorization Act] any additional special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters who assisted U.S. troops on the battlefield, due to objections raised by the Senate Judiciary Committee," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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The source did not specify what objections were raised by the Judiciary Committee, saying only that they are "procedural." 

While there are about 4,000 visas currently available for Afghan interpreters through September, more than 10,000 applicants have been waiting in a backlog for years.

The source said some of those applicants fear retaliation by a resurgent Taliban and are in hiding, adding, "The stakes couldn't be higher." 

The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is scheduled to be reduced from 9,800 to an embassy presence by the end of year, which could further impact the applicants' safety. 

The International Refugee Assistance Project slammed the omission.

"More than 10,000 Afghan allies who have given sacrificial service to our country are waiting for visas. It is crucial that Congress keep its promise and allocate these desperately needed visas," said Betsy Fisher, the group's policy director. 

The omission of more visas from the bill would be a departure for the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDonald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (R-Ariz.). Congress has authorized thousands of additional visas for Afghan interpreters since 2013. 

Between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, the visas were capped at 1,500 annually, with any unissued visas carrying over to the next year. Congress increased that number to 4,000 for the 2014 fiscal year, and to 7,000 through September 2016. 

The issue has been an emotional one for lawmakers and especially for U.S. veterans of the Afghanistan War who were aided by and accompanied on missions by Afghan interpreters. 

“These are people who have put their lives on the line not just for their country, but for ours,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine and Iraq veteran, said last month as the House Armed Services Committee marked up its defense policy bill. 

“The very least we can offer them is a chance to stay alive,” he said. 

The House panel's bill similarly does not provide additional visas and narrows eligibility requirements. Moulton said he did not introduce an amendment to increase the numbers due to committee jurisdictional issues but did introduce an amendment that would undo the stricter eligibility rules. The House Armed Services, Homeland Security and Judiciary committees share jurisdiction over the visa numbers.

Moulton later withdrew his amendment but has vowed to offer an amendment to undo those provisions when members take up the bill on the House floor later this month.

The visa program has become a target for lawmakers who are seeking to limit immigration to the U.S., including House Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), according to an April 29 New York Times editorial.

-- Updated 1:01 p.m. ET