The program that grants visas to Afghans who helped the U.S. military during the United States' longest war is at risk of ending next year after an extension was left out of the annual defense policy bill.
The Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, in recent years. But the compromise version of this year's defense policy bill that is expected to become law this month left out a one-year extension that had been included in prior iterations.
That means, if the program isn't extended in a different bill, Afghans won't be able to apply for the visas after the program expires Dec. 31, 2023, despite the fact that thousands of Afghans remain desperate to escape the Taliban, who have reportedly been hunting down those who helped the U.S. military.
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"By removing a provision to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program, as well as my bipartisan provision that would offer better protection of our wounded Afghan allies, we are sending the message that we actually don't keep our promises," Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said in a statement last week. "For decades to come, our young troops will be asked, 'Why should we trust you?' when they ask our allies for help, just as I had to ask Iraqis to risk their lives for my Marines."
The Afghan SIV program was created in 2009 to give Afghans who served as interpreters for the U.S. military, as well as their family members, a path to escape Taliban threats to their lives and resettle in the United States.
Since its inception, the program has been beset by slow processing, exacerbated by low staffing at the State Department and shoddy record keeping by the military or contractors, making it difficult for some Afghans to prove their work with U.S. troops. The issues came to a head last year as the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years, with tens of thousands of SIV applicants still waiting for their visas.
While the military evacuated about 76,000 Afghans during the withdrawal, advocates estimate about 78,000 who are eligible for SIVs were left behind.
Though new applicants would not be accepted after 2023 if the program isn't extended, the State Department told Military.com it could continue issuing visas to those who had already applied until the specific number of visas authorized by Congress runs out.
About 14,000 visas remained as of Nov. 1, the State Department said. As of the end of June, more than 60,000 SIV applications were pending, according to the department's most recent quarterly report.
The department declined to comment on reauthorization being left out of the NDAA, with a spokesperson saying they would not comment on "any proposed legislation."
While the NDAA has often been used to extend the program, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., blamed the fact that "multiple jurisdictions" have a say on the SIV program for it being left out of this year's defense bill.
Supporters of the program are pinning blame on Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over visa and immigration issues.
Grassley, who has argued Afghan evacuees have undergone insufficient security vetting, suggested that opposition to extending the SIV program was widespread among Republicans.
"We've got too much opposition on our side," he told reporters last week. He did not answer when repeatedly pressed on whether he personally opposes the SIV program.
The exclusion from the NDAA has left the program's supporters fuming.
"It's tremendously disappointing that Republican obstruction prevented Congress from extending authorization of the Afghan SIV program in this bill, which is fundamental to the United States upholding its promise to our Afghan allies," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in an emailed statement. "There was strong bipartisan support to rescue our Afghan allies amid our withdrawal, but now a handful of my Republican colleagues are obstructing a necessary program extension."
The program has appeared at risk of ending before after being shortchanged in the NDAA -- only to be saved by a later bill, the annual government spending package. For example, in 2017, the State Department had to halt visa interviews after that year's defense bill did not add enough visas to the program, but the omnibus spending bill passed a few months later added thousands more visas.
It's unclear whether a government spending bill is a viable path to extend the program this time. Lawmakers are in the process of negotiating an omnibus spending package to fund the government when current funding expires Friday, and Reed noted the "next ship leaving the dock" is the omnibus when asked whether the SIV program could be added back to the NDAA before the Senate passes the defense bill later this week.
But the omnibus negotiations are struggling over unrelated disagreements on domestic spending, and the Republican opposition that kept the SIV program out of the NDAA would likely be an issue for the omnibus too.
While Shaheen's statement said she will "keep exploring ways to get this through Congress," her office said it did not have any updates when asked Friday if she plans to push for it in the spending bill.
Moulton's office said his focus for the omnibus is on the separate but related issue of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow Afghans evacuated to the United States to apply for green cards and expand eligibility for the SIV program. Advocates have been pushing for the Afghan Adjustment Act to be attached to a government funding bill for months.
Moulton will instead try to reauthorize the SIV program through stand-alone, bipartisan legislation he aims to introduce early next year, his office said.
"It is beyond me why some of my colleagues -- who have never even known what it is like to put their lives in the hands of these brave allies in combat -- would deliberately strip reauthorization for this program. It represents the worst, most nativist undercurrents in our society and is not what America should strive to be," Moulton said in his statement. "I will be working hard with many other colleagues who do support our allies to find a workable resolution."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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