A bill to authorize an additional 8,000 special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters, contractors and other vulnerable allies is scheduled for House consideration on Thursday.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., would open up the extra slots in a visa program designed to provide a safe haven for Afghan allies at risk of persecution or death if they remain in Afghanistan as the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from the country.
The bill’s consideration comes as the Biden administration moves forward with plans to evacuate applicants for special immigrant visas to a safe location while their claims are processed — a step advocates say is sorely needed for a visa program whose wait times stretch for years.
Around 20,000 Afghans and their families are in line for the program, which has a total of 26,500 authorized slots. The State Department said around 750 SIV applicants, and their family members, will soon be evacuated to the U.S. and complete their processing at Fort Lee, Va.
“Once they’re out, whether that be Fort Lee, a U.S. installation overseas or to a third country, all of them still have to be processed for an SIV,” Crow, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said in an interview.
“What we’re trying to do is increase the cap to meet the current pipeline plus some, to give us some room, and expedite that process so they can be processed more quickly — whether that be in Afghanistan or once they’re evacuated.”
At a briefing Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said an additional 4,000 applicants in the SIV pipeline but haven’t yet received the security vetting needed to enter the U.S. would be evacuated to “locations outside of the United States, where they will be safe and where they will be provided accommodation during this processing period.”
Crow’s bill would also expand eligibility to family members of SIV applicants who have been killed, as well as Afghans who worked with certain nongovernmental organizations and could face persecution but would not qualify under the program’s current requirements.
Another bill sponsored by Crow, which the House passed last month but the Senate has not taken up, would help expedite the SIV application process for Afghans by postponing a required medical exam for applicants.
Crow said he expects the bill up for debate Thursday will win bipartisan support in the House, and he is hopeful the Senate will consider it soon.
“I don’t see any reason why the Senate wouldn’t want to take this up quickly,” Crow said. “Every day that passes that this doesn’t become law, people are at great, great risk in Afghanistan.”
The Senate, meanwhile, is taking its own steps to move legislation to bolster the special immigrant visa program. Last week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., released a $3.7 billion Capitol supplemental security spending proposal that also would increase the total number of authorized Afghan special immigrant visas from 26,500 to 46,500.
It would also provide $100 million in “emergency aid” for Afghan refugees, citing U.N. estimates that 500,000 Afghans will flee their homes in the coming months as the Taliban gains ground in the country.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday he was open to funding to help relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. government in his own supplemental proposal, which totals just over $1 billion.