Congress has reached a deal to provide an additional 2,500 visas for Afghan interpreters who worked for the US government and now risk being killed, in an attempt to alleviate a massive backlog of more than 13,000 applications for the special visa program.
"This is potentially a life-saving development," Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, one of the lawmakers who had pushed to include the visas in the funding bill, said in a statement Monday morning. "I'm tremendously relieved that this bipartisan agreement includes additional visas for Afghan interpreters and support staff."
The State Department recently told BuzzFeed News that approximately 15,000 Afghans had applied for the visa program but that only 1,437 visas remained. Those figures do not include interpreters' families, who may also eligible for the program.
The State Department stopped scheduling new interviews for the program on March 1, citing a lack of visas. Afghans interpreters and their families have faced everything from death threats to torture and murder, often as their applications to move to the US languished.
The deal to provide 2,500 more visas — a number supporters thought was realistic, given some Republican opposition — is part of a much larger agreement on a funding bill that will prevent the government from shutting down at midnight Friday. It comes after Congress approved another 1,500 visas in a defense bill in November. The new funding bill now awaits a vote in the House and Senate.
On Monday afternoon, Sen. John McCain, chair of the Armed Services committee, said he was also happy to see the visas in the funding bill.
"The United States made a commitment that we would protect these brave individuals and their families for supporting the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, and who are living under immediate threat of reprisal from the Taliban because of their assistance," McCain said in a statement.
A bipartisan group of senators has been pushing their colleagues to authorize more visas for the program since mid-March. Democratic Sens. Shaheen, Richard Blumenthal, and Jack Reed, as well as Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, wrote a letter asking appropriators to allocate an additional 2,500 visas in the 2017 funding bill.
"As you know, the Afghan SIV program offers carefully vetted Afghans whose lives are in danger because of the critical assistance they provided to our soldiers and diplomats the chance to seek refuge in the United States," read the letter the senators sent to the Appropriations committee on March 16. "Unfortunately, this critical program is projected to run out of visas by the end of May, stranding many thousands of qualified Afghans."
The fight over authorizing more visas for Afghan interpreters is nothing new in Congress. In June 2016, Shaheen and McCain led efforts to reauthorize the program for another year and allocate 4,000 new visas, the amount the Obama administration believed the State Department could handle for one year. But the senators were faced with opposition from Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions, now the US attorney general, and Chuck Grassley, chair of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration-related legislation.
An aide familiar with funding talks previously told BuzzFeed News that the effort to allocate more visas in 2017 was again facing opposition from Grassley and some House Republicans.
On Monday evening, Grassley confirmed he had concerns and said they stemmed from two issues: "One, if you're going to give more visas, you should take away unused visas someplace else." The Huffington Post reported last year that during negotiations over the program, Grassley's office proposed "a one-for-one reduction" with the US diversity visa program.
"The second thing is that there's several visas that are unused right now," Grassley said Monday. "In other words, they haven't used up every visa between now and the next time we have an opportunity to increase it. They ought to use up what they have instead of asking for more right now. They aren't processing them fast enough."
When told the State Department has had to stop scheduling new interviews because of the visa shortfall, Grassley said he was basing his concerns on figures from three to four months prior.
"We want to make sure that they don't get a bunch out there," Grassley said, "and we also want to make sure that the people that get the visas have actually done — well, I guess maybe I've said all I can say on it."
Appropriators in the House and Senate have been working on a spending bill to fund the government through the end of September, the end of the fiscal year. Negotiators reached an agreement on Sunday, two days after Congress passed a one-week stopgap bill to avoid a government shutdown last Friday.
In her statement Monday, Shaheen said that, in the future, "it's critical that Congress overcome obstruction to this program and regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship."
"The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance."