By Bridget Johnson
WASHINGTON — After the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in March froze the interview process for Afghans who had supported U.S. forces due to a lack of visas, a bipartisan effort secured 2,500 more visas in the compromise spending bill up for consideration this week.
The special immigrant visa (SIV) program was established in 2008 to allow Afghans who had helped the coalition as interpreters to find safe haven in the U.S. The visa criteria were later expanded to Afghans who provided “at least one year of faithful and valuable service” in support of U.S. government operations.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), an original advocate and architect of the SIV program, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had urged congressional appropriators to include the same level of visas in the omnibus as were included in their legislation, the Keeping Our Promise to Our Afghan Allies Act introduced in March.
“We need to bring our faithful allies to safety faster and more effectively, and today is a major step forward in support of that effort,” Blumenauer said in a statement today. “We are going to continue fighting to keep this program alive, no matter the hurdle. This is the bare minimum we can do for those who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, to help our country.”
Kinzinger noted that the U.S. “made a promise to the men and women who served alongside us on the battlefield, and we must uphold that promise to leave no man behind.”
“I’m glad to see the increased number of visas included in the budget,” he added. “A good step in the right direction to show our support for those allies who have risked their lives to advance the cause of freedom, and protect the United States.”
The SIV backers in the Senate said not approving the extra visas would send a poor message to U.S. allies and put lives at risk.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) recalled how Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, recently told his committee that the war in Afghanistan is in a stalemate.
“We simply cannot win this war without the assistance of the Afghan people who put their lives on the line to help American troops and diplomats,” McCain said. “While this is an important development, it is critical that Congress regularly authorizes visas and appropriates the funding needed to ensure the continuation of this vital program for both Afghan and Iraqi interpreters.”
“Doing so will send a clear message that America will uphold our commitment to those – who at great personal risk – stand with us in the fight against terror.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called the inclusion of the visas in the government spending bill “potentially a life-saving development.”
“I’m tremendously relieved that this bipartisan agreement includes additional visas for Afghan interpreters and support staff. Allowing this program to lapse would send the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them,” Shaheen said. “It’s both a moral and practical imperative that Congress approve additional visas.”
Congress needs to “regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship,” she added. “The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance.”