Support for Afghan Allies Sidelined Yet Again Despite Push from Veterans

U.S. Marine takes an Afghan evacuees’ luggage to the plane at Al Udeid
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Leonard Bradley with the Evacuation Control Center, takes an Afghan evacuees’ luggage to the plane at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Sept. 3, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kyle Jia)

Veterans and other advocates pushing for support for Afghans evacuated to the U.S. in 2021 are fuming after that support was left out of a major bill that passed the Senate -- again.

Worsening the sting this time is that the Afghan proposal -- which would provide those here now under a temporary legal status a path to permanent residency -- was originally in the bill but got taken out when a bipartisan agreement to tighten immigration laws collapsed.

The whirlwind couple of weeks has essentially put veterans' efforts back at square one and left Afghans still waiting for the safety and stability they were promised for helping the U.S. military during America's longest war.

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"It really speaks to the inability of Congress to do really much of anything at this point and to really solve any issues of substance," one veterans advocate told on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about a subject they are continuing to work on with lawmakers. "I know a lot of veterans -- including I served in Afghanistan myself as a Marine -- just a lot of my friends I served with are following this pretty closely, and it's really even further eroded the trust in government institutions and in leadership.

"A lot of people are left just kind of feeling, 'What next?'" they said.

Veterans have been working for two years to pass legislation known as the Afghan Adjustment Act that would create a process for those evacuated to the U.S. during the military withdrawal to become legal permanent residents. The measure also seeks to help Afghans who helped the U.S. military but are still stuck in Afghanistan with reforms to the Special Immigrant Visa program.

After previous efforts to include it in must-pass bills were blocked by immigration hard-liners, supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act got the closest they've come to a win last week when senators unveiled a long-awaited agreement to provide aid for the wars in Ukraine and Israel in exchange for immigration law changes sought by conservatives. Nestled in the 370-page bill were provisions similar to the Afghan Adjustment Act.

But Republican senators who demanded and negotiated the immigration deal quickly turned on it after former President Donald Trump, current front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, urged them to vote it down. A procedural vote on the foreign aid and immigration bill failed 49-50 last week.

Warning of the dangers of failing to support Ukraine and Israel, Senate Democratic leaders then revived the foreign aid portion of the bill. But the Afghan provisions were considered part of the immigration deal and were dropped from the slimmed-down bill.

Supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act scrambled to try to get it put back into the foreign aid bill through an amendment vote. Advocates from five veterans groups sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling for the Afghan provisions to be restored and held a hastily arranged press conference at the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

"I see this as a veterans issue," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the lead Republican co-sponsor of the amendment and the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said at the news conference Thursday. "I see it as part of my role in the veterans committee to see that those who served are successful in caring for those who helped them while they served. And this is a national security issue. It sends a message that we are going to care for those who help us. It's a message to our allies that we're dependable and a message to our adversaries that we're united."

Counting Moran, 10 Republican senators -- enough to pass legislation if every Democrat supports it -- signed on as co-sponsors to the bipartisan Afghan amendment.

Ultimately, though, no amendments of any subject came to the Senate floor after Republicans opposed to the foreign aid bill objected to speeding up consideration of the legislation in exchange for amendment votes.

The foreign aid bill, which includes $2.4 billion for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, passed the Senate early Tuesday morning in a 70-29 vote.

Advocates are now eyeing the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual must-pass defense policy bill, as their next target for trying to attach the Afghan Adjustment Act, the veterans advocate who spoke to said.

"Really sh---y that the Senate didn't pass #AfghanAdjustment in the National Security Supplemental," Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of the #AfghanEvac coalition, an umbrella organization for hundreds of nongovernmental groups that helped with the evacuation, posted on social media Tuesday. "But we've come to expect disappointment from government, as a starting point, and we aren't going anywhere."

Related: Veteran Supporters Finally Get Vote on Bill to Help Afghan Allies, But Its Future Remains Bleak

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