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House passes bill to authorize 8,000 more visas for Afghan allies

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill with members of the American Legion on June 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images/TNS)

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation to authorize an additional 8,000 special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters, contractors and other vulnerable U.S. allies.

The bill would also expand eligibility to family members of SIV applicants who have been killed, as well as Afghans who worked with certain nongovernmental organizations and could face persecution but would not qualify under the program’s current requirements. It passed with a 407-16 vote.

“Some members of this body, including me, may not be here today without the service and self-sacrifice of Afghans who answered the call to serve shoulder to shoulder with us,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Passage of the bill comes as details emerge on White House plans to evacuate thousands of Afghan citizens from the country. The administration plans to fly around 750 SIV applicants and their family members who have completed security vetting to Fort Lee, Virginia, while another 4,000 applicants will be moved to a safe third country while their claims are processed.

More than 20,000 Afghans are in line for special immigrant visas. About half have not completed the initial steps of the application process, so they cannot yet be moved, senior State Department officials said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

The department has taken steps to expedite visa processing for a program whose wait times currently stretch for years.

“We’ve already accelerated the processing of SIVs in part by adding additional staff at U.S. Embassy Kabul to process applications and by using technology to improve efficiency and workflow,” Brian P. McKeon, deputy secretary for management and resources, said on the press call.

House Republicans widely backed Crow’s measure, but many used Thursday’s floor debate as an opportunity to more broadly criticize the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s reckless withdrawal is allowing the Taliban to once again seize control of Afghanistan, and the urgency of the situation on the ground is not hyperbole,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. “No one is safe from the Taliban reprisal we’ve seen in recent weeks.”

Another bill sponsored by Crow, which the House passed last month but the Senate has not taken up, would help expedite the SIV application process for Afghans by postponing a required medical exam for applicants.

The Senate, meanwhile, has taken its own steps to move legislation to bolster the special immigrant visa program. Last week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., released a $3.7 billion Capitol supplemental security spending proposal that also would increase the total number of authorized Afghan special immigrant visas from 26,500 to 46,500.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said Monday that he was open to funding to help relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. government in his own supplemental proposal, which totals just over $1 billion.

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