Senators press Defense officials on expediting visas for Afghans who helped US troops

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Senators pressed Defense officials Thursday on their plans to expedite visas for Afghans who helped U.S. troops, the latest warning from bipartisan lawmakers about the need to ensure the safety of Afghan allies as the U.S military departs.

Afghans who served as interpreters for U.S. troops or otherwise assisted U.S. personnel during the 20-year war can come to the United States through what’s known as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.

But that program faces a years-long backlog of thousands of applications, raising concerns among U.S. lawmakers that Afghan allies will be left behind amid the U.S. withdrawal and potentially face slaughter by the Taliban.

The Biden administration has said it is looking at ways to improve the program, but has offered few specifics.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, senators pressed David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, for more information.

“I appreciated your support for those Afghans who have helped us during our 20 years in Afghanistan, but I think we’ve got to be clear about what we’re doing to address that,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told Helvey, noting the 18,000 SIV applications awaiting processing. “Many of the delays in the SIV program stem from the difficulty that those applicants have in obtaining employment verification letters from former and often defunct employers.”

The concern voiced at Thursday’s hearing echoed similar concerns expressed at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Afghanistan earlier in the week, as well as a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

Lawmakers have sent several letters to the Biden administration imploring them to expedite visas for Afghans who helped U.S. troops, including one this week from Shaheen, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and a bipartisan group of their Senate colleagues and another from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

Under senators’ questioning Thursday, Helvey said the Pentagon is working to provide data such as biometrics to verify whether applicants qualify for visas.

But the Pentagon’s database of biometric data has “gaps,” Helvey added, including Afghans who helped U.S. troops before the department started collecting that data.

Helvey also called on Congress to increase the number of visas allowed under the SIV program, as well as its “resources.” Congress has authorized a total of 26,500 visas for the program since 2014.

The administration is also looking at other ways to help Afghans who do not qualify for the SIV program, Helvey said, including significant public benefit or humanitarian parole, which are measures used to bring otherwise inadmissible people to the United States temporarily during an emergency.

“We have a moral obligation to help those that have helped us over the past 20 years of our presence and work in Afghanistan,” Helvey said.

The answers appeared to do little to satisfy senators.

“I don’t get a lot of comfort out of those answers,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the committee. “I’m very much concerned.”

Ernst raised the case of an Afghan interpreter in her state who she said recently had his application for asylum denied.

“So if you can also work with the State Department and just stress to them, as we are stressing to them, how important it is that as we’re withdrawing, we are also making sure that we are protecting those who have enabled our forces in Afghanistan,” Ernst said. “It is extremely important that it’s not just the men that have served as interpreters. But it will also be the women and girls that have stepped up to assist us as well.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told Helvey he appreciates his commitment to work on the issue, while stressing that “clearly folks who have been helping us over many years and serving this country, we have to make sure that they are taken care of in a way that doesn’t bring harm to themselves or their families.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), meanwhile, pressed Helvey on whether there are plans for large-scale evacuations, comparing the situation to the end of the Vietnam War. 

“A year or two from now, [if] anybody who cooperated with our military forces in Afghanistan, is being hunted down or killed, this will be a horrible thing, of course,” Sullivan said. “And if we have the ability to prevent that in the way we tried to and Vietnam on a bigger scale, I think it’s in the interest of our nation to do that. I think it goes to the honor of our country. These are people who have sacrificed, risked their lives to help us when we were there.”

Helvey replied that “if the security conditions deteriorate, and if we’re given an order to take other means and other mechanisms, we would have the ability to do that.”

Tags Dan Sullivan Gary Peters Gregory Meeks Jeanne Shaheen Joni Ernst Michael McCaul
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