A new bill introduced in the Senate seeks to bring stability to the visa program for Afghans who helped U.S. troops by nearly doubling the number of visas available and extending the program for five years.
The bill, introduced Thursday by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., would also try to reduce the backlog of visa applications with several provisions aimed at streamlining the process.
"Afghanistan might not be on the front pages anymore, but the United States cannot forget about the promise we made to our Afghan allies who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans throughout 20 years of war," Shaheen said in a statement last week. "Our nation promised to stand by them as they stood by us. They held up their end of the deal -- the U.S. must do the same."
Both Shaheen and Wicker sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Wicker serves as the top Republican on the panel. Shaheen's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on whether the pair are aiming to get the measure in the committee's annual defense policy bill.
A companion version of the bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.
The program, known as the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, has been beset by delayed processing and backlogs for years. The issue came to a head with the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, as Afghans worried about being hunted down by the Taliban because of their work with the U.S. scrambled to make it aboard evacuation flights. While the U.S. military evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans during the withdrawal, just a fraction were SIV applicants or visa holders.
Advocacy groups estimate that tens of thousands of Afghans who may be eligible for SIVs and their family members remain in Afghanistan. As of the end of 2022, nearly 63,000 applicants were awaiting what's known as chief of mission approval, while another nearly 77,000 have at least started the application process, according to the State Department's most recent quarterly report. The U.S. government's average processing time was 314 days, despite the law stipulating that it should take no longer than nine months.
While the SIV program has garnered bipartisan support, it has faced opposition from some Republicans who are immigration hard-liners, and there have been times when supporters were fearful the program would end because of the opposition. For example, an extension of the program was initially left out of last year's defense policy bill, but eventually found a home in the government spending bill passed in December.
The related but separate issue of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which is a bill that would create a pathway for the Afghans evacuated in 2021 to become legal permanent residents of the U.S., has been stalled by Republican opposition.
To remove the threats of annual fights over extending the SIV program, Shaheen and Wicker's bill would authorize it through 2029 and add 20,000 visas, bringing the total number of visas approved to 54,500. The program is currently authorized through 2024.
The bill also seeks to alleviate some chokepoints in the application process identified in a report Shaheen issued on the SIV program last year. Specifically, the bill would allow the State Department to conduct initial interviews with applicants virtually and reimburse them for the application's required medical exam.
The bill would also direct the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to appoint senior coordinating officials for the SIV program and require the State Department to craft a strategy to address the backlog.
"America made a promise to those who served alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan," Wicker said in a statement last week. "Following the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, these allies are even more at risk. The U.S. has a moral obligation to follow through and help these supporters who have given invaluable assistance to our forces for over 20 years."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.