White House Backs Raising Visa Cap for Afghans Who Assisted U.S.

The Biden administration is working with Congress to offer more visas to Afghan nationals who risk being targeted by the re-emergent Taliban for assisting U.S. forces during the two-decade war there.

The legislative push comes as officials rush to evacuate thousands of Afghans to neighboring countries before the withdrawal of U.S. forces is completed next month. It has widespread support, but lawmakers are split on how to speed it through the typically slow-moving Capitol.

Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, said he has collaborated with administration officials on his bill to raise the special immigrant visa cap by 8,000 visas and remove some application requirements. The State Department has issued 26,500 of these visas since 2014.

The House is slated to take up the bipartisan legislation, which has 113 cosponsors, this week and Crow said he hopes the Senate will act soon after it passes. On Monday, the White House endorsed the legislation.

“There’s not a reason I can see why they wouldn’t want to take this up expeditiously and get it done before the August work period begins so we can send it to the president’s desk and he can sign it and we can start making it happen,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan.

The White House, in a statement on the bill, pointed to the work of Crow and other lawmakers who served in Afghanistan.

“The Administration looks forward to working with Congress on this bill to ensure we are honoring our promises to those who stood with us at great risk to their personal lives and those of their families, and to whom we are indebted,” the White House said in the statement.

Moving the measure through Congress in the coming weeks would probably require a Senate agreement to take it up without the extended debate requirements that accompany most bills. To that end, any one senator could slow things down.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and long-time critic of the war in Afghanistan, has questioned whether Congress needs to act. Paul is well-known for blocking legislation, although he didn’t specifically say he would do so on an Afghan visa bill.

‘Stay and Fight’

“I think those who speak English and are our friends should stay and fight for their country,” Paul said. “I think if they all leave we’re more likely to see the Taliban take over.”

Crow’s legislation is part of a sustained effort among lawmakers, particularly veterans of America’s longest war, to help evacuate interpreters, teachers, truck drivers and other Afghans who helped the coalition war effort over the last two decades. The upcoming House debate follows weeks of news conferences and intense behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to get the administration to act quickly.

“We are outright talking lives here,” Crow said. “Every day, every week that passes will cost people their lives in Afghanistan.”

The Pentagon said Monday that the first in a group of 2,500 Afghans in the Special Immigrant Visa program will be transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia, where they will complete the State Department-led process to move to the U.S. About 700 are applicants and the rest are family members, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

“We expect them to remain there only for a few days” while they complete final medical screenings and other paperwork, Kirby said. Other facilities will also likely be needed to house the applicants, he said, and the Pentagon is considering other locations in the U.S. and overseas.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government has had a “range of discussions” with third countries to take Afghan applicants while their requests are being processed and will reveal where some evacuees will go when it won’t affect their safety.

In the Senate, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Appropriations committee, added a provision to an emergency spending measure on Capitol security that would raise the visa cap and appropriate $100 million for evacuation efforts.

‘Moral Issue’

“It’s a moral issue,” Leahy said in an interview. “We’re going to see people lined up against a wall and machine-gunned.”

The Vermont Democrat has argued that attaching the Afghan measure to the Capitol security bill would improve its prospects, although the supplemental bill is currently stalled.

Leahy and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, have discussed the issue, though Shelby hasn’t explicitly backed its inclusion in the broader bill. Shelby has said that the issue is “something we are not going to turn our backs on.”

“Stand-alone bills don’t often get to the president’s desk, so this needs to be attached to a must pass bill because the need is urgent and, like Capitol security, has to be addressed now,” Leahy said.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who has sponsored a bill to raise the visa cap by 20,000, said there is a “sense of urgency” in Congress to get something done before August.

“We’re in a place where we have the potential for Congress to act before the August recess in an expedited process,” she said Friday in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For his part, Crow said he thinks that a stand-alone bill is the best hope for the measure because it has administration support. Crow said the administration has the necessary authorities to evacuate the Afghans but needs Congress to authorize the additional visas.

The White House plans to start flying people who worked with U.S. forces out of Afghanistan later this month to protect them from the Taliban, which is rapidly gaining territory in the country.

The flights will be to neighboring countries and will be for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who are already in the application pipeline for the Special Immigrant Visa program, a process that can take several years. The administration has asked three Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- to temporarily house the Afghans.

In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will continue to process visa applicants after troops leave the country, and officials will devote additional resources to process those applications, according to a person familiar with the State Department’s plans. The government has already sped up processing time by surging resources there, the person said. A small contingent of American troops will stay to guard the embassy.

The Taliban -- the fundamentalist Islamist group that was forced from power when U.S. troops invaded in 2001 -- has said that Afghans who assisted the U.S. have nothing to fear after the American withdrawal and shouldn’t leave.

“We viewed them as our foes when they were directly standing in the ranks of our enemies, but when they abandon enemy ranks and opt to live as ordinary Afghans in their homeland, they will not face any issues, hence they should not remain fearful and should continue living a serene life in their own country,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in a statement last month.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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