House passes legislation to expand Afghan visa program

The House on Thursday approved legislation to expand and streamline a visa program for Afghan translators and other personnel who worked with the US military and are now trying to leave the country as the Taliban threatens to retake control of Afghanistan.

The House passed the legislation sponsored by Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, 407-16.

The bill would make a number of changes to the Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program as the Biden administration scrambles to evacuate thousands of Afghans amid the US military withdrawal from the country. The legislation increases the number of available visas by 8,000 and clarifies who is eligible for the program, which is intended to make it easier to get the visas approved.

Lawmakers in both parties have been frustrated by the Biden administration’s slow pace moving Afghans under the program since the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced earlier this year, warning thousands of Afghans’ lives are at risk if they aren’t evacuated before the US military leaves the country.

The Biden administration this week announced the first group of applicants would be relocated from Afghanistan to Ft. Lee in Virginia, and US officials are in talks with additional countries to host Afghans in the pipeline. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the initial tranche is estimated to include 2,500 people — 700 applicants and their immediate family members.

The initial group that is being relocated is a small portion of the overall number of roughly 20,000 Afghans who are in the Special Immigrant Visa pipeline. About half of those 20,000 are in the very preliminary stages of the process and need to take action before the US government can begin processing their cases, a State Department spokesperson said last week.

The other Afghan applicants who are further along in the process but have not been approved through the security vetting process will go to US military bases overseas or to third countries, the spokesperson said.

Crow said after the vote that he hoped the Senate would move quickly on the legislation.

“We’re out of time. People are dying now, the situation is getting worse,” Crow told reporters. “It’s harder and harder to get to Kabul with each passing day. So the Senate needs to pick this up and pass it as quickly as possible, send it to the President and start these evacuations.”

The legislation that was approved Thursday is one of several legislative efforts that have been introduced in both chambers to try to help the administration jumpstart the process for the roughly 20,000 Afghans awaiting a visa. A group of senators introduced legislation last month that would also expand the SIV program, and the House passed another bill in June that would waive the requirement for applicants to go through a medical examination while in Afghanistan.

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