Senate lawmakers voted Thursday to push for a fix to the expiring Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program as part of upcoming conference negotiations on an annual defense budget bill, a positive step for thousands of foreign translators hoping to escape to American safety.
The 84-12 vote comes after a series of legislative defeats in recent months for supporters of the program, started six years ago as a way to protect foreign nationals who helped U.S. troops and officials during the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Only a few thousand have managed to secure the visas and move to the United States, while about 10,000 Afghan nationals' requests are still pending consideration. The program will stop accepting new applicants at year's end if an extension is not authorized by Congress.
Immigration critics have blocked the renewal so far this year, and the item was excluded from the separate House and Senate drafts of the annual defense budget measure.
Thursday's vote does not guarantee the item will be included in the final draft of that bill, expected sometime this fall, but does signal significant support for the program within the Senate.
It states that conferees from the chamber are "instructed to insist that the final conference report include language to extend the Afghan special immigrant visa program through Dec. 31, 2017, and authorize additional visas to ensure visas are available for applicants who meet the criteria under the program."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sponsored the instruction motion and argued that without action "it will leave thousands of Afghans who stood alongside our men and women at severe risk."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has also signaled strong support for the visa extension, and will lead the Senate's negotiation team on the authorization bill conference. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has voiced similar support.
McCain and Thornberry held their first meeting on the conference work Wednesday, telling reporters afterward they are confident they will be able to work out differences and pass the bill before the end of 2016.
The defense authorization bill has been passed by lawmakers for 53 consecutive years, one of the rare pieces of annual legislation to boast bipartisan support across multiple divided Congresses.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.