Senators ask to include visas for Afghans in spending bill

Senators ask to include visas for Afghans in spending bill

Four senators are pushing appropriators to include visas for Afghans who helped U.S. troops in a spending bill for the State Department as the visa program faces a shortfall.

In a letter released Monday, the senators quoted Defense Secretary James Mattis’s support for the program in arguing for additional visas.

“Keeping our promise to those Afghans who meet the strict qualifications of this program is a strategic imperative as well as a moral one,” they wrote. “During his confirmation process, Secretary Mattis noted that ‘most of our units could not have accomplished their missions without the assistance, often at risk to their lives, of these courageous men and women,’ and he pledged to work to ensure such individuals are not left behind.”

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Shaheen, Tillis and Reed, along with Sen. John McCainJohn McCainBush biographer: Trump has moved the goalpost for civilized society White House to pressure McConnell on ObamaCare McCain: Trump needs to state difference between bigots and those fighting hate MORE (R-Ariz.), introduced a bill last week that would add 2,500 visas to what’s known as special immigrant visa program.

Last year, the same quartet of senators tried unsuccessfully to add 4,000 visas to the annual defense policy bill. Ultimately, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed with 1,500 additional visas.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has stopped interviewing applicants for the special immigrant visa program due to a lack of available visas. The State Department has said it doesn't expect to restart interviews until Congress acts.

The program is meant to help Afghans facing threats to their lives for serving as interpreters or otherwise assisting U.S. troops.

As of March 5, just 1,437 visas remain and the number of applicants in the final stage of the process is enough to use all those, the State Department has said.

The program is expected to officially run out of visas by June 1, and more than 15,000 Afghans are at some stage in the application process.

In their letter, the senators asked the appropriators to include 2,500 more visas in the upcoming spending bill. Congress must pass a spending bill to fund the government by the end of April, when a stopgap spending measure expires.

The senators are asking for 2,500, since that would mean 4,000 are visas approved for this year when combined with the 1,500 in the NDAA.

In addition to Mattis’s support, the senators cited Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who told senators last month that ending the program “would be the wrong message to send our Afghan partners.”

The senators also highlighted that the State Department spending bill the committee passed last year would have included the 4,000 they sought. 

“Given that history and the pressing need for additional visas beyond the 1,500 included in the FY2017 NDAA,” they wrote, “we respectfully urge you to ensure that no fewer than 2,500 additional Afghan SIVs are included in whatever mechanism funds the State Department through the end of Fiscal Year 2017.”