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Just hours before closing up for summer break, Congress opened up a door for more Afghan civilians to immigrate to America.
The Senate on Friday voted to renew the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program, adding 1,000 new visas for Afghans who assisted U.S. forces overseas. The House approved the move two days earlier, and the president is expected to sign the change into law in coming days.
The program already has 3,000 slots for would-be immigrants, but State Department officials believe they’ll reach that cap later this month. Without the additional visas, Afghan translators and other contractors would be forced to wait until fiscal 2015 — which starts in October — to seek expedited entry into the U.S.
That drew concern from numerous veterans, who worried the Afghans could be injured or killed if their visa applications face any delays.
“The Taliban are hunting these people down as we speak here today,” Rep. Adam Kinziger, R-Ill., said during House debate July 30. “Whether we agree or we disagree with the war in Afghanistan, the reality of it is this: We all can agree that those that were willing to stand by us and to stand against this very, very bad enemy well deserve to come here.”
Lawmakers also framed the issue as one of military safety, arguing that taking care of vulnerable allies after fighting ends encourages others to assist U.S. troops in future conflicts.
State Department officials said processing time for the visas averages about eight months. The program has been streamlined in recent years, and efforts to clear a backlog of the applications led to a higher number of completed cases this year.
In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the congressional action.
“More than 11,000 Afghans and their family members have benefited from SIV programs, and we are eager to welcome many more,” Kerry said.