Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US

An elderly Afghani man is questioned by U.S. Army soldiers through an interpreter in 2012
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A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Friday aimed at bulking up a visa program for Afghans who helped U.S. troops amid increasingly urgent warnings about their safety as the U.S. military withdraws.

The bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill) would add 20,000 visas to what’s known as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, nearly doubling the number of visas Congress has authorized since 2014.

“The U.S. cannot renege on its commitment to the Afghans who’ve risked their lives to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said in a statement. “The Special Immigrant Visa is a proven and well-vetted pathway to safety for these Afghans, but serious improvements are needed to uphold the integrity and improve the efficiency of the program. Increasing the number of authorized visas and removing cumbersome requirements that leave folks in limbo are essential to provide for those who’ve worked alongside our troops.”

The bill also seeks to make it easier to apply for visas and process applications by changing the employment requirement for eligibility from two years to one year; postponing the required medical exam until the applicant and their family have arrived in the United States; removing the requirement for a credible sworn statement regarding the threat an applicant faces; and removing the requirement that employment must have been for “sensitive and trusted” activities.

The bill would also grant special immigrant status to spouses and children of murdered applicants.

“This legislation would make important updates to the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program to help more vulnerable aides and their families escape before it is too late,” Wicker said in a statement. “The U.S. owes these courageous men and women a debt of gratitude – we cannot leave them behind.” 

Lawmakers and outside groups have been pushing the Biden administration to evacuate Afghans who served as interpreters or other helped U.S. troops to a safe location such as Guam amid slow processing of their requests for SIVs, with increasingly urgent warnings that time is running out as the withdrawal proceeds.

In addition to the Senate bill introduced Friday, two bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House to add visas to the program and speed up visa processing.

Defense officials have insisted they will “keep faith” with those who helped the United States and have said they are working with the State Department to speed up application processing.

But no evacuation has been ordered, and the Biden administration has not committed to one despite the pressure.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced Friday it is suspending all visa operations in response to an increase in COVID-19 in Afghanistan.

The development prompted Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to call on President Biden to explore using humanitarian parole for Afghans who helped U.S. troops. Humanitarian parole allows someone who is otherwise inadmissible to temporarily enter the United States in an emergency.

“The health and safety of our diplomatic personnel is a high priority for me. But suspending visa operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul at this critical juncture only further exacerbates the situation for those awaiting their Special Immigrant Visas,” McCaul said in a statement Friday. 

“With this latest setback in visa processing, I also now believe President Biden should explore the option of humanitarian parole, which has been utilized in past refugee crises, for that same group of Afghans awaiting the final stages of visa processing,” he added. “These Afghans will have a bullseye on their backs from the moment we leave the country. If President Biden abandons them, he is signing their death warrants.”

Tags Dick Durbin Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden Joni Ernst Michael McCaul Roger Wicker

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