With Afghans who helped the U.S. military facing threats from the Taliban as American troops withdraw from the country, the House on Thursday was set to expand a visa program to allow them to more quickly immigrate to the United States.
The bill would expand the number of available special immigrant visas for Afghans to 19,000 from 11,000 and broaden the universe of people eligible for them by removing some application requirements.
“Many of us have expressed grave concerns about the challenges our allies face in navigating the application process,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Administration Committee. “Afghans stepped forward to serve aside our brave military.”
Under the legislation, applicants would no longer have to provide a sworn statement that they faced a specific threat or proof that they held a “sensitive and trusted” job. Instead, the measure would in effect stipulate that any Afghan who helped the U.S. government by definition faces retribution, and should be able to apply for a visa.
The legislation, spearheaded by Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger, has broad bipartisan support.
Its consideration comes as the Biden administration has announced plans to evacuate a group of Afghans who helped the United States during the 20-year war to an Army base in Virginia in the coming days. About 2,500 Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with American forces, as well as their family members, will be sent in stages to Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond, to await final processing for formal entry into the United States, officials said.
With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies who helped the United States and to speed up the process of providing them with special immigrant visas.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, said the Afghans have a “bull’s-eye on their back.”
“They will be killed if we don’t get them out of there,” Mr. McCaul said. “Please, Mr. President, get them out before they are killed.”
The House has already approved the first in a package of bills that would smooth the visa process by waiving a requirement for applicants to undergo medical examinations in Afghanistan before qualifying. It aims to shorten the long wait for permission to enter the United States, which can be as long as six or seven years for some applicants.
The bills face an uncertain future in the Senate, where there is bipartisan support for the Afghan visa program, but funding for its expansion has been embroiled in a broader fight over spending on Capitol security.
Some of the “Afghan allies” awaiting visas have spoken out about the threats they face from the Taliban.
Since 2014, the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind has tracked the killings of more than 300 translators or their family members, many of whom died while waiting for their visas to be processed, according to James Miervaldis, the group’s chairman and an Army Reserve noncommissioned officer.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been caught in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, which are available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. The applicants have 53,000 family members, U.S. officials have said.