House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US
The House approved a bill Thursday aimed at expediting visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. military and are facing threats to their lives as the Pentagon nears the end of its withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years.
The bill passed 407-16, with the “no” votes coming entirely from Republicans.
The bill, dubbed the Allies Act, would add another 8,000 visas to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who helped the United States and remove several hurdles to obtaining the visas.
“Those Afghans knew the risk that their service posed to them and their families, and yet they signed up to help because they believed that we would have their back,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), the lead sponsor of the bill. “They have earned a path to safety.”
The bill comes as the Biden administration has faced mounting pressure from lawmakers in both parties and advocates to more quickly process SIV applications and evacuate applicants while they complete a process that can take years and leave them vulnerable to the Taliban while they wait.
On Monday, the administration announced it would evacuate an initial batch of 2,500 SIV applicants and their families to Fort Lee, Va. The applicants have already undergone security screening and are considered to be in the final stages of the application process, so are only expected to stay at Fort Lee for approximately a week.
The administration is also working on finding an overseas location to evacuate another 4,000 applicants who have received what’s known as “chief of mission approval” but have not undergone the more rigorous security screening the group coming to Fort Lee has.
But there’s an estimated total of 18,000 applicants awaiting visas, along with an estimated 53,000 family members seeking to accompany them. The application process can take as long as 800 days.
In an effort to alleviate some of the backlog, the ALLIES Act would eliminate a requirement for applicants to submit additional paperwork proving there’s a credible threat to their lives since “both public and clandestine reporting indicates that Afghan nationals who worked on behalf of the U.S. Government face heightened risk of retribution from the Taliban,” according to a summary of the bill from Crow’s office.
The bill would also clarify that Afghans who worked with nongovernmental organizations under cooperative agreements and grants with the U.S. government are eligible for visas, including those who performed democracy, human rights and governance work.
It would also expand eligibility to family members of SIV applicants who died before completing the process.
The White House has backed the bill, saying in a statement this week it will “will assist in our efforts to streamline the application process by removing or revising some statutory requirements the Administration has found to be unnecessary and burdensome, while maintaining appropriate security vetting, and by increasing the total number of visas available to help meet the demand.”
“The administration understands that many members of Congress and their constituents have served alongside the men and women whom we are trying to help through the SIV program,” the White House said. “We are grateful to them as well as to all of the U.S. military and civilian personnel, serving alongside our Allies and partners, for their service and dedication to the mission.”