It’s not just about fairness. It’s a matter of life and death.
That’s what lawmakers say about their push for 4,000 new special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked with American military forces.
“Each one of these visas save lives, not just of the interpreter who receives it but also their families,” said Janis Shinwari, co-founder of the advocacy group No One Left Behind and himself a special immigrant visa recipient. “It’s our job now to fight for these brave heroes.”
Shinwari’s comments came at a Capitol Hill event unveiling the new legislation, dubbed the Afghan Allies Protection Act. The measure has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and it has been an issue of growing concern among military supporters in recent years.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. and sponsor of the House legislation, said the number of participants in the program dropped by more than half from fiscal 2017 to 2018, to fewer than 7,300 individuals. He worries that excessive paperwork and new immigration regulations from the White House are hurting those families.
“Too often these people, who were our vital partners, have become victims of al Qaida and the Taliban,” he said. “These are people for whom the very act of working with us in theater put their lives at risk.”
The legislation provides 4,000 more Afghan special immigrant visas (SIV) for the remainder of fiscal 2019, and it offers changes to what the bill’s authors see as administrative obstacles for families applying to the program. Those visas would be available until the end of 2021.
Shinwari said his group estimates that as many as 15,000 former interpreters and support staffers are in Afghanistan awaiting an opportunity to emigrate to America.
“These people can’t continue to live in Afghanistan,” he said.
Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. — all of whom served in war zones overseas — relayed stories of critical Afghan partners receiving death threats for their work on behalf of foreign forces. The veterans called caring for those individuals a duty of the country, given their own service to America.
“We need people to know they can trust the words of the United States,” Kinziger said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. and the lead of the Senate effort for the visa expansion, said she wants a broader review of both the Afghan and Iraq visa programs, to address why the numbers have dropped despite thousands of overseas candidates.
“We have an obligation to provide sanctuary from terrorist threats,” she said in a statement. “Any failure to uphold our nation’s promise to these brave men and women jeopardizes local support in future missions.”
Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are expected to finish their drafts of the annual defense authorization bill in coming weeks. The legislation, which has passed Congress each year for more than five decades, has been a vehicle for approving similar visa expansions and re-authorizations in the past and could be again this year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.