Senate fight brews over Afghan visas

Senate fight brews over Afghan visas
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A fight is brewing in the Senate over special immigration visas for Afghans who assisted U.S. troops and diplomats during the Afghanistan War.

On one side are Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE (R-Ariz.), Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power CIA watchdog to review handling of 'Havana syndrome' cases Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag MORE (D-N.H.), military veterans and refugee groups who want to boost the number of visas.

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On the other, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE (R-Ala.), and critics of bringing more immigrants to the U.S.

Caught in the middle are 10,000 Afghans who have applied for the special immigration visas. Only 3,500 visas are currently left.

Matt Zeller, an Army veteran and founder of a non-profit, said many Afghans who worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan are now being tortured and killed by the Taliban.

"They execute them and basically make snuff films out of their death," Zeller said. "They get them to essentially confess to their crimes and then they cut them apart, piece by piece of their body."

Zeller said the videos are being sent into Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali, to deter others from working with U.S. forces.

“Our nation has a moral obligation to protect those Afghans whose lives are in imminent danger today because they supported American troops and diplomats,” McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, said in a statement.

Congress has authorized thousands of additional visas for Afghan interpreters since 2013.

Between fiscal 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 fiscal 2014, and to 7,000 through September 2016.

But this year, the visas have become a political football during an election season where presumptive nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE has made his concerns about illegal immigration and Muslim immigrants a centerpiece of his campaign.

Sessions is serving as a national security adviser for Trump's campaign.

Immigration visas have also become a touchy subject in the wake of a string of attacks in Europe and in San Bernardino, Calif. carried out or inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  

The administration has also fueled the debate with its plan to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. by October.

The fight over Afghan visas first gained attention last month during the House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill extended the visa program, but did not authorize additional visas, and narrowed eligibility for them.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq veteran, successfully stripped the bill of the language on new restrictions.

The fight over the visas is expected to come to a head when the Senate takes up its version of the defense bill in coming weeks.

Shaheen and McCain on Thursday introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would increase the number of the visas by 4,000.

The move came after they were blocked from adding the visas to the bill before the Senate Armed Services Committee's markup by Grassley. His committee has jurisdiction over immigration visas.

"Under the circumstances, the Judiciary Committee, which is the committee of jurisdiction, didn’t have enough information to determine if an increase was necessary or prudent since there are thousands of unused visas already allotted to the program," said Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Beth Levine.

Levine said Grassley has requested additional information about the visa program from the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but has not yet received any of the requested information from USCIS.

She also cited a lack of evidence showing the Afghans were facing threats, and questions about their entitlement to benefits should they become Lawful Permanent Residents, the current number of unused visas and the price tag of $446 million over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Zeller told The Hill he met with majority staff members of the Judiciary Committee and Grassley's office on Thursday, who allegedly told him that Sessions was behind the block, and that the chairman was acting on his behalf.

"They said to me, looked me in the eye and said, 'Look, one of our members' -- and they said Sessions -- 'on the committee raised an issue concerning immigration to the chairman, and the chairman on his behalf has taken up this issue,'" he said.

Sessions' office did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Hill.

In a recent Washington Post piece, though, Sessions cited the cost of the program, said it wasn't clear more visas were needed, and cautioned it could lead to a brain-drain in Afghanistan.

“We just need to be careful about this,” he told the Post. “Just because you’ve got applicants doesn’t mean every one of them is deserving of acceptance.”

Zeller said Grassley has offered Shaheen and McCain a deal -- that any increase in visas for Afghans would be matched by a decrease in visas for another category of immigrants.

Zeller said the offer is a "non-starter" with both Shaheen and McCain.

"I will not stand by while Congress turns its back on these individuals and imperils our ability to secure this kind of support in the future," Shaheen said in a statement. "I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support my amendment and those who have done so much for this country." 

Zeller warns that if the U.S. does not authorize more visas, it could deter Afghans from helping U.S. troops who are currently serving in Afghanistan. 

That assertion was backed up by Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. 

“Failure to adequately demonstrate a shared understanding of their sacrifices and honor our commitment to any Afghan who supports the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support missions could have grave consequences for these individuals and bolster the propaganda our enemies,” Nicholson wrote in a May 20 letter to McCain, according to the Post.

"This is hurting guys. This is leading to a lot of guilt," Zeller said. "The only thing that we need to do to correct this is the courage and conviction to do the right thing."