US lawmakers seek more visas for Afghans who helped US forces

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators introduced legislation on Wednesday that would provide an additional 2,500 visas for Afghans who have assisted U.S. forces by working as interpreters or in other support functions, often risking their lives.

The U.S. State Department said last week it would soon run out of visas for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, designed to help bring to the United States those who have worked for the government during the decade and a half that U.S. forces have been engaged in the country.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul has stopped scheduling interviews for applicants seeking a visa through the program.

The bill was introduced by Republican Senators John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Thom Tillis, and Democrats Jack Reed, the committee's top Democrat, and Jeanne Shaheen. Tillis and Shaheen are also members of the panel.

The four senators led efforts in the Senate to extend the Afghan SIV program last year.

"This legislation would ensure the continuation of this vital Special Immigrant Visa program, and send a clear message that America will not turn its back on those — who at great personal risk — stand with us in the fight against terror," McCain said in a statement.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed late last year added 1,500 visas to the program, while tightening requirements for eligibility.

Shaheen's office said more than 10,000 applicants are still in the process of obtaining visas.

The Afghan visa announcement came as U.S. officials prepared to implement President Donald Trump's executive order, effective this week, that temporarily bans the admission of refugees and some travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.

Afghanistan is not one of the six but some members of Congress have resisted expanding the SIV program out of concern that militants could use it to enter the United States. Supporters of the program dismiss the concerns, noting that applicants are subjected to intense screening.

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An Afghan policeman stands guard as smoke and flames rise from the site of a huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan man is seen through the broken window of a bakery at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan residents watch as security forces keep guard at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of the international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. At least five people were killed when a Taliban suicide car bomber struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, the latest in a wave of lethal bombings in the Afghan capital. AFP PHOTO/ Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security forces carry a victim into a ambulance at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of the international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. At least five people were killed when a Taliban suicide car bomber struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, the latest in a wave of lethal bombings in the Afghan capital. AFP PHOTO/ Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security forces shout as they keep watch at the site of a huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan firefighters work to put out a fire at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of Kabul's international airport, in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan firefighters spray water at the site of a bomb attack near the entrance to Kabul's international airport in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan men walk past the damaged window of a roadside stall near the site of a bomb attack near the entrance to Kabul's international airport in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a bomb attack near the entrance to Kabul's international airport in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan National Army (ANA) solider stands guard as firefighters spray water at the site of a bomb attack near the entrance to Kabul's international airport in Kabul on August 10, 2015. A huge blast struck near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on August 10 during the peak lunchtime period, officials said, warning that heavy casualties were expected. 'The explosion occurred at the first check point of Kabul airport,' said deputy Kabul police chief Sayed Gul Agha Rouhani. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
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(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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