WASHINGTON ― The massive government spending bill negotiated by lawmakers over the weekend includes a provision that would create an additional 2,500 visas for Afghan interpreters who worked alongside the U.S. military in the war in Afghanistan.
If the spending bill passes, the visas would provide a critical lifeline for hundreds of Afghans whose lives are now in danger because of their assistance to American troops.
“This is potentially a life-saving development,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the lawmaker who spearheaded the effort to secure more visas, said in a statement on Monday. “Allowing this program to lapse would send the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them.”
The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan relies heavily on local interpreters. In addition to language translation, interpreters provide troops with a better understanding of the culture and politics in the area. But working with Americans can pose a huge risk for locals in Afghanistan. Interpreters, whom militants view as traitors, often become the targets of death threats. In recognition of their sacrifices, the State Department has a program that provides “special immigrant visas” to Afghans who face an “ongoing serious threat” because of their work as interpreters for U.S. troops.
The State Department depends on Congress to authorize enough visas to keep the program running. Right now, the program is effectively stalled. There are currently more than 14,000 Afghans at some stage of the application process, a State Department spokeswoman told HuffPost. As of April 20, there were only 780 special immigrant visas remaining. Last month, the State Department said it would not schedule any more interviews for Afghan applicants until lawmakers allocated additional visas.
Passing legislation to keep the State Department supplied with enough visas for the Afghan interpreters should be easy for lawmakers. There is bipartisan support for the program in Congress. The military’s top brass ― including former commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal ― have all urged Congress to allocate more visas. Gen. John Nicholson, the current commander in Afghanistan, has said that failing to do so “could have grave consequences for these individuals and bolster the propaganda of our enemies.” During his confirmation hearing in January, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he would work to ensure that the translators were not left behind after risking their lives to support the U.S. war effort.
Nonetheless, lawmakers have struggled to authorize even a fraction of the visas needed to fulfill the current demand.
Last year, Sens. Shaheen and John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed to include 4,000 visas in the must-pass defense spending bill ― less than half the number of Afghans applying for special immigrant visas at the time. But they ran into opposition from then-Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who quietly indicated their opposition to a net increase of foreigners entering the country. Sessions and Grassley proposed that for every visa for Afghan interpreters, there be an equal reduction in diversity visas, HuffPost reported at the time. Shaheen rejected their offer and ultimately pushed through 1,500 visas in the defense spending bill.
Sessions, who is now the attorney general, told the Associated Press last year that he was unsure if all of the applicants seeking special immigrant visas were “deserving of acceptance.”
The Afghans seeking entry to the U.S. through the special immigrant visa program are among the most carefully vetted immigrants. They undergo extensive screening before they can even be hired to work with U.S. troops. When they apply for a special immigrant visa, they undergo an additional multi-agency screening process that can take as long as two years.
While the additional 2,500 visas will allow the State Department to resume the process of screening applicants, it will not be enough to address the ever-growing need in Afghanistan.
“Going forward, it’s critical that Congress overcome obstruction to this program and regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship,” Shaheen said. “The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance.”