The bill introduced Thursday by Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Dick Durbin, Joni Ernst and Roger Wicker would increase the number of visas authorized by 20,000 and revise some of the eligibility requirements for the program.
Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, noted that the SIV program needs “serious improvements” in order to “maintain integrity and improve (its) effectiveness.”
“Increasing the number of visas authorized and removing onerous requirements that leave people in limbo are essential to provide for the needs of those who have worked alongside our troops,” she said.
US Central Command said this week that the withdrawal of US troops and military equipment from Afghanistan was “more than 50 percent” complete. Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, noted in a statement that “Afghan citizens who have supported the United States are more threatened than ever by the Taliban and other violent individuals who may demand retaliation” as the United States withdraw from the country.
“This legislation would bring important updates to the special Afghan immigrant visa program to help the most vulnerable helpers and their families escape before it is too late,” he said. “The United States owes a debt of gratitude to these brave men and women – we cannot leave them behind. ”
“We need to live up to our commitment to those who put themselves at risk by ensuring that this program has the capacity to fully deal with and help put those people to safety, and that’s what I’m working on with Democrats and Republicans, ”Ernst said. , a Republican from Iowa, said.
The new legislation proposes to reduce the eligibility requirement for applicants from two years to one year of service and to postpone the medical assessment requirement until the applicant and their family members are in the United States. United. It would also remove the need for applicants to obtain an affidavit attesting to the threat they face and also remove the requirement that individuals employed by the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support carry out “sensitive and trustworthy” activities.
The law would also extend special immigrant status to certain spouses and children of applicants who have been murdered.
“Given the threats they face in helping the United States, we must expand and expand the Afghan immigrant special visa program to ensure their safety and that of their families,” said Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.
A Senate adviser told CNN that the Biden administration is aware of the bill. It is hoped that if passed, the administration will immediately implement the changes to the SIV program.
Lawmakers are pushing for markup as soon as possible and are considering incorporating parts of the bill into other pieces of legislation under consideration in Congress, such as the NDAA, the aide said. They are aware that the legislation may not be passed until the United States withdraws.
With the rapid pace of the withdrawal, the Biden administration faces increasing pressure to take concrete steps to ensure the safety of the Afghans who have assisted the United States during its nearly two decades of military engagement in Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that the department had increased its staff in Washington to process Afghan SIV requests and “approved a temporary increase in consular staff at our embassy in Kabul for conduct interviews and process visa applications “. However, the United States Embassy in Kabul announced on Friday that it was suspending all visa operations effective Sunday due to a Covid outbreak in Afghanistan. Senior Deputy Spokeswoman Jalina Porter said on Friday that nominations for the “chef de mission” stage would continue to be processed in Washington, DC.
Matt Zeller, a U.S. veteran who served in Afghanistan and a member of the Truman Center for National Security, said there was immense fear on the ground among those who aided the United States that once foreign forces would leave the country, they would be targeted. and killed by the Taliban. Zeller told CNN he was also concerned that the administration thinks it has more time to come up with a solution than it does.
“My fear is that they don’t have the little time we have left, they think they have a lot more time and they think the SIV program is enough to make it happen,” he said. declared.
Bipartites call for evacuation
The Senate aide told CNN that while the new legislation does not address the possibility of an evacuation, it could be used in conjunction with one.
In their letter last week, House lawmakers called on the administration to “establish an interagency president’s task force responsible for visa management and the evacuation of our Afghan allies prior to our withdrawal from the country.” and suggested that he specifically consider Guam as a potential evacuation. to place.
Camille Mackler, an immigration lawyer and senior visiting researcher on immigration at the Truman Center for National Security, told CNN that “evacuation is the only possibility at this stage given the delay.” She noted that evacuation to US-held territory is the best option.
“If we were to wait for everyone to go through the visa process, even with some kind of resource increase in visa processing, given everything that is going on and the way the immigration system works. we would be talking about months, if not years, to overcome the backlog, ”she said.