Meijer seeks to increase cap on special visas for Afghans

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer has introduced legislation in Congress to boost the cap on special immigrant visas for interpreters and other Afghans who worked for the U.S. or coalition cause in Afghanistan. 

The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, would increase the visa cap by 10,000 for Afghan allies, thousands of whom remain behind after the U.S. withdrew troops by Aug. 31. 

The legislation also clarifies that Afghans are eligible for the visas if they were employed by a cooperative agreement or grant funded by the U.S. government or that they otherwise contributed to the American mission in Afghanistan. 

U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday.

“While the U.S. military is no longer present in Afghanistan, our mission there is not over,” said Meijer, a Republican from Grand Rapids Township.

“We still have thousands of interpreters and other Afghan partners who put themselves and their loved ones at risk now stranded in Afghanistan, and the chaotic and heartbreaking withdrawal that the world witnessed over the last few weeks shows just how vulnerable they still are." 

The U.S. airlifted over 120,000 people out of Kabul in the last weeks of August, but it remains unclear how many Afghan SIV applicants actually got out, with some reports suggesting the majority are still in Afghanistan, where they could be targeted by the Taliban for their work on behalf of Americans. 

More:Grand Haven veteran’s Afghan interpreter evacuated from Afghanistan to Canada

The SIV program has long been troubled by processing delays, staffing shortages and cumbersome interagency approvals, resulting in a backlog of over 18,000 applications, according to State Department figures from earlier this year.

Applicants were waiting over three years on average for approval, and were sometimes denied for technical or unknown reasons. 

“For 20 years, our Afghan partners worked with us and fought with us to accomplish our missions in Afghanistan," Crow said. "They did so with the understanding that if they stood with our soldiers, America would be a place where they could seek refuge. The war may be over, but we can’t leave our friends and partners behind."

Legislation by Crow signed into law earlier this summer revised the program to increase the cap of available principal visas by 8,000, as well as eliminating duplicative paperwork and the requirement that applicants demonstrate they faced a serious threat to their safety as a consequence of their employment.

A spokeswoman for the State Department said it will still honor its commitment to SIV applicants who risked their lives for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, saying applications continue to be processed at an accelerated rate.

"We continue to work to implement efficiencies across all federal government agencies involved in this effort to process SIV applications as quickly as possible through all stages," the spokeswoman said.

Meijer has criticized the Biden administration for not starting the mass evacuation months earlier, as he and other members of Congress had urged. 

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he "respectfully" disagrees with critics who said he should have begun the evacuation sooner. 

"Imagine if we'd begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 140,000 people in the middle of a civil war," Biden said. 

"There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission."

Meijer has said he understands how chaotic the situation was at the Kabul airport gates, and how hard U.S. military and diplomatic officials worked to safely evacuate people. He saw the situation firsthand when he secretly flew to Kabul with Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and spent 12 hours on the ground.

Meijer said there is now two options for getting out the Afghan allies and U.S. citizens who remain in Afghanistan: waiting for the airport to reopen in Kabul, so that hopefully chartered flights will be allowed to go in and get people who qualify. The riskier option is to try to get them out through a land border with a neighboring country, which is dangerous because of checkpoints set up by the Taliban and even the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan known as ISIS-K, he said.

"This job is very much not done," Meijer said during a Thursday town hall on Facebook. "We still have folks in harm's way who are being hunted by the Taliban. We will not rest until we get them out."

mburke@detroitnews.com