The White House budget plan to provide 20,000 more visas for Afghan allies left behind doesn’t go far enough fast enough, according to advocates for the tens of thousands left in dangerous legal limbo.
They insist that Congress needs to act now, by voting to cut the red tape slowing the entry of those individuals to the United States.
“The proposed visas would go a long way to help,” said Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach. But until Congress passes legislation to reduce the backlog of Afghan cases awaiting review, he said as many as 130,000 Afghan allies will remain mired in months or years of State Department paperwork.
Advocates like Purdy say the slow progress at getting Afghan allies to safety damages the U.S. reputation globally as a promise not kept to those who who risked life and limb for U.S. and NATO forces in 20 years of war.
Since August 2021, when U.S. military forces withdrew as Taliban forces took control, nearly 80,000 Afghans at risk have been evacuated from the country. But many living in the United States face uncertain residency status, and fear of being forcibly deported. And tens of thousands more former Afghan allies are stuck inside Afghanistan, many unable to even start the application process until they find a way out. Or they have escaped, but they are burning through cash and temporary visas in third countries as refugees.
President Joe Biden’s budget plan for next year, released last week, calls for a 20,000 increase in the cap on the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan citizens. The visa program allows fast-track immigration help for individuals who aided U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the 20-year military mission there. Advocates said raising the cap by 20,000 is a positive signal of support for the larger effort, but speeding up processing times by updating some immigration requirements would make a more significant impact for families awaiting answers.
“It’s good to see the administration is taking action to ensure the longevity of the program, but what we need to do is pass legislation like the Afghan Adjustment Act,” which would cut some of the delays applicants face, said Peter Lucier, a Marine Corps veteran and lead for strategic partnerships at Team America Relief.
“We need help for the 72,000 parolees already here in America, waiting,” said Lucier, who was among the witnesses for the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 8 regarding the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Afghan Adjustment Act stalled in Congress last year despite months of lobbying from veterans, military service organizations and Afghan refugees, dozens of whom held months of protests on Capitol Hill and across the country. The legislation still requires background checks, but would do away with some barriers like requiring applicants to appear at a U.S. embassy overseas to argue their cases, especially as the U.S. does not have an active embassy in Afghanistan.
The president’s budget request is unlikely to pass without heavy revisions by congressional Republicans and Democrats in coming months. Whether the visas issue will survive is unclear, but some Democratic lawmakers are optimistic the inclusion of the issue in the draft budget can restart discussions on the topic.
Last week, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. and a vocal proponent of improvements to the SIV program, called the plan to increase the number of available slots a positive development for the debate.
“I will not forget our Afghan allies and I will make sure U.S. lawmakers and officials don’t either,” she said in a statement. “The U.S. must keep its word and continue to provide visas for our Afghan partners, and we must also keep working to reform the program so we can get people out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.”
Republican and Democratic leaders are expected to negotiate over budget details for the next six months, right up to the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. No public timetable has been set for discussions on passing the Afghan Adjustment Act this congressional term.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.