House adopts bill to expedite visas for Afghan interpreters who worked for U.S. forces

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. House on Thursday adopted a bill that aims to expedite the processing of special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters and other Afghans who worked for U.S. or coalition forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The legislation, the Allies Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 407-16, sending the measure to the Senate for consideration. 

Supporters stressed the urgency of making changes to the long-troubled Afghan visa program as the U.S. wraps up its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the coming weeks, and as Afghans are hunted down and killed by the Taliban in retaliation for working with Americans.

"It is our moral obligation to honor the promises we made to our Afghan allies and ensure that those who risked their lives for the U.S. mission are safely relocated," U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, said Thursday on the House floor.

"But it's patently clear that the special immigrant visa program, as it currently exists, is not up to the task."

In this April 30, 2021, file photo former Afghan interpreters hold banners during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. House on Thursday adopted a bill that aims to expedite the processing of special immigrant visas for interpreters and other Afghans who worked for U.S. or coalition forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The program has long been plagued by processing delays, staffing shortages and cumbersome interagency approvals, resulting in a backlog of over 18,000 applications. Applicants wait three years on average for approval. 

Revisions to the program in the bill include increasing the cap of available principal visas by 8,000 to accommodate those waiting in the pipeline, as well as eliminating duplicative paperwork and the requirement that applicants demonstrate they face a serious threat to their safety as a consequence of their employment.

"At this point, the credible threat can be presumed," Meijer said in an interview this week. "You know, it's hard to offer documentation when someone calls you and says that they're gonna kill you. Not all death threats come in the form of an easily notarized letter to put into your paperwork file."

He noted the legislation also expands eligibility for the program, including for spouses and children of applicants who died or were killed by the Taliban before their visas were approved. Meijer served in Iraq and later worked with humanitarian groups in Afghanistan.

Rep. Peter Meijer

Other Michigan co-sponsors of the measure included U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly and Bill Huizenga, R-Holland. 

An Army veteran from Grand Haven, Gerald Keen, has been trying for years to help his former Afghan interpreter, Rahim, secure one of the visas, which allow Afghans and their immediate family to claim refugee status and resettle in the United States.

Rahim, who The Detroit News is not identifying due to safety concerns, worked for U.S. and coalition forces for 27 months, but his application remains pending.

"If they leave me in Afghanistan, they will kill us. They're not going to leave us alive," Rahim told The Detroit News in May. 

Meijer said he's encouraged and "cautiously optimistic" about the Biden administration's announcement that it plans to begin evacuating some SIV applicants the last week of July as their visa applications continue to be processed.

Meijer thinks the worst option for relocating the Afghans would be neighboring countries in Central Asia or the Middle East due to diplomatic and logistical issues, relative to options such as a U.S. territory like Guam or U.S. bases in Kuwait, Bahrain or Qatar. 

"Each day that passes is another day that movement is increasingly restricted within Afghanistan, is another day the Taliban continue to capture and hold more territory, and it's another day where our interpreters and others are being hunted down," Meijer said. 

"If I was impatient before, I'm no more patient or satisfied, just hearing vague offerings that there is a plan. We need to start seeing action and action fast."

Some Republicans criticized the Allies Act on Thursday, including California Rep. Tom McClintock, who worried that changes to the program would mean that applicants aren't adequately vetted for security purposes. He was also unhappy about eliminating the requirement that Afghans show evidence of serious threat to their safety.

"This requirement is one of the main reasons for the creation of the program — to help ensure the safety of those in danger because of working with the U.S.," he said.

"This means that among the worthy asylum seekers, we're likely to see those without merit or worse — those who seek to do our country harm, because the vetting process is effectively abandoned by this bill."

Supporters disputed that characterization, including GOP Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, who served combat tours in Afghanistan and said the legislation would not circumvent the security vetting process.  

McClintock said he'd vote for the bill anyway as the "least bad option that Democrats have left us." 

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, applauded the bill's passage Thursday. 

"This is the right thing to do, and I am glad to see this life-saving legislation garner such strong bipartisan support," he said. 

Waltz and other veterans, including the bill's author, Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, say that evacuating the Afghans is a matter of national security for the United States because abandoning them will set up the U.S. military as less trustworthy, should it need to enlist the help of the local community in a future conflict.

"If we turn our back on the Afghans who served with us the last two decades, it's going to be awfully hard to find future friends," Crow said Thursday. "This is our chance to do the right thing." 

Crow has also introduced the HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act, which would temporarily waive the medical examination requirement for SIV applicants, in part because the exams often expire before the rest of their paperwork is considered due to processing delays. Tlaib and Meijer are co-sponsors. 

mburke@detroitnews.com