Congress rushes to help Afghans seeking visas to help US


WASHINGTON — As President Biden’s September deadline to end the long war in Afghanistan approaches, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is ramping up efforts to ensure that Afghans facing punishment there for working alongside American troops and personnel are able to immigrate to the United States.

A group of Republicans and Democrats, many of whom are military personnel or veterans who have worked with translators, drivers, and mediators in Afghanistan and other combat zones, are racing to create legislation to Helping the “Afghan Allies,” As they are often called, before US forces return home, leaving these allies defenseless against retaliatory attacks by the Taliban. The lawmakers want to make it easier for Afghans to qualify for special visas, speed up the process of obtaining them and get them out of Afghanistan as soon as possible while they wait for permission to live legally in the United States.

More than 18,000 Afghans who worked as translators, drivers, engineers, security guards and embassy clerks during the war are stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire after applying for special immigrant visas – available to people who face threats because of working for the US government – with some waiting six or seven years to be processed their requests.

The case backlog does not include family members, an additional 53,000 people, or the expected increase in applications with the withdrawal of US forces.

“We are frustrated here as lawmakers, especially those who have served and want to help the people who helped us,” said Representative Brad Weinstrup, an Ohio Republican and an Army Reserve colonel who worked with Iraqi interpreters when he served in the military. In Iraq as a combat surgeon in 2005 and 2006.

In recent weeks, Mr. Weinstrup said he has been thinking about the Iraqis he served with – the men who like to sell illegal artwork and films at an army base – including two killed in surprise attacks near Abu Ghraib, and a third who was eventually able to get On his visa, he is now a US citizen and a successful cardiologist in Ohio.

He said, “They have become your brothers and sisters.”

Mr. Winstrup is part of the “Keeping Our Promises” working group – made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans – which spearheaded legislation introduced Thursday that would speed up special immigrant visas from Afghanistan and increase the number available to 19,000, from 11,000. The group is also lobbying The Biden administration is in an unlikely attempt to arrange a mass evacuation of Afghan applicants, possibly to US territory in Guam, while visas can be processed.

The bill would expand the world of eligible Afghans by removing what supporters call “onerous” application requirements, including a “credible sworn statement” of a specific threat and proof of a “sensitive and reliable” job. Instead, the procedure in effect states that any Afghan who assists the US government by definition faces a penalty, and should be able to apply for a visa.

“It has become very clear to us that we have very little time left to help those in Afghanistan,” says Representative Jason Crowe, D-Colorado, a sponsor of the bill and a former military guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I have grave concerns.”

While Mr. Biden set a September date for withdrawal, military officials have since signaled an acceleration of the schedule, with US forces and NATO allies present. Planning to leave by mid-July.

Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret who still serves as a colonel in the Army National Guard, said Biden had little time to address the situation.

“If he does not act and these people do not come out, his hands and the hands of his administration will be stained with blood,” Mr. Waltz said.

non-profit organization No one is left behind Tracking the killings of more than 300 translators or their family members since 2014, many died while waiting for their visas to be processed, according to James Mervaldez, the group’s president and Army Reserve non-commissioned officer.

The death database maintained by the group serves as a catalog of horrors: the murder of a translator in a suicide attack in front of a bank; Another was captured along the highway between Kandahar and Kabul and tortured; Another was killed in a nightly attack on his home.

In a poll conducted by the organization, more than 90 percent of the 464 Afghan allies who were asked said they had received at least one death threat because of their work with the Americans.

“They are all terrified of the world,” said Mr. Mervaldes.

He noted that the average time an Afghan applicant waits for a special immigrant visa to process was 3.5 years.

“We have people waiting six years, and people waiting seven years,” he said. “There is literally no opposition in Congress, and it is frustrating how slow progress has been.”

A mass evacuation would be a logistical challenge, as would moving a small town. So far, the Biden administration has resisted such calls, and the prospect appears highly unlikely. In a recent interview on CNN, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the eviction “the wrong word,” and called instead for better performance of the visa program.

He said the Biden administration recently added 50 employees to speed up the process.

“We are determined to fulfill our obligations to those who have helped us, and those who have put their lives on the line,” said Mr. Blinken. “We have dedicated significant resources to making sure that the program can run quickly and can operate effectively.”

But pressure is growing to do more. Last week, The New York Times published interviews with Afghan translators who said they feared for their lives Where they were waiting for their applications to be processed.

“If the Taliban takes power, they will find me easily and kill me,” said Waheedullah Rahmani, 27, who has been waiting for the visa decision since 2015. “Then my wife will not have a husband and my daughter will not have a father.”

To varying degrees, the special immigrant visa has suffered from chronic delays and crisis for more than a decade. Mr. Crowe said the problem was exacerbated by former President Donald J. Trump, who said he deprived the program of resources and staff, and then the coronavirus pandemic, who shut down interviews and scrutiny.

A January State Department report noted that “limited staffing” and “local safety conditions directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic” severely impact the visa application process.

Mr. Crowe and Mr. Weinstrup presented a variety of procedures, including this week’s, which is intended to speed up the process. A separate bill they wrote would waive the requirement for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants to undergo medical examinations. There is only one clinic in the country that does exams – a German facility in Kabul – that requires some translators to travel long distances in sometimes dangerous conditions. Mr. Crowe said the tests are expensive.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, introduced another measure to expand the number of visas available by 4,000. So far, about 15,000 visas have been approved since the program began, but only about 11,000 are still available — a number that lawmakers say is well below the need.

“It was mind-numbing: the slowdown, the lack of coordination,” Mr Blumenauer said. “It was incredibly frustrating. As a country, we did not live up to our responsibilities.”

They had support in the other room from Senator Joni Earnest, a Republican of Iowa and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, and Senator Jane Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. The couple wrote to the Biden administration He called for expanding the program by 20,000 visas Solve the bureaucratic problems that cause the backlog.

“We are deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals following the departure of US forces,” the senators wrote in a letter signed by 18 of their colleagues. “While this will be an increase over previous years, it is imperative that we do everything we can to support the program while the United States has the internal capacity to do so.”

Ms. Shaheen last week introduced legislation that would extend and amend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program, defer medical examinations and extend visas for spouses and children of allies who were killed while waiting for their visas to be processed.

“Leaders of both parties have shown their support,” Mr. Crowe said. “I anticipate that we will receive urgent processing of these invoices.”

The bills have attracted dozens of co-sponsors, and lawmakers in both parties have in the past strongly supported the visa program. In December as part of Huge spending billCongress raised the cap on the visa program by 4,000 to 26,500.

Several nonprofit groups and refugee advocates are pressing the Biden administration to do more.

About 70 organizations recently wrote a letter to Mr. Biden urging his administration to “immediately implement plans to evacuate vulnerable Afghans associated with the United States”.

Krish Omara Vinarajah, head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service, which organized the campaign, points to a precedent in making the case, noting the 1975 Ford administration’s evacuation of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to the United States via Guam; 1996, the airlift of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds out of the country; In 1999, 20,000 Albanians were evacuated from Kosovo to Fort Dix, New Jersey

“We made a promise to them that we would not turn our backs on them and would not leave them behind,” Ms. Vignarajah said.

Abdul Wahid Foruzan, 34, was a translator for the US Army in Afghanistan, came to America three years ago via the visa program and is now married, a father, and works as a janitor in College Park.

In an interview, he described the decision to leave Afghanistan as difficult and painful, but said it was his only option given the death threats he faced.

“The homeland is loved by everyone, and no one loves their homeland,” Mr. Foruzan said. “But when your life is in danger, and your family’s life is in danger, and when you are threatened every day, I cannot live in Afghanistan.”

David Zussa Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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