(Bloomberg) — The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to raise the cap on visas for Afghan nationals who assisted U.S. troops and risk being targeted by the Taliban for their work during the two-decade war there.
The bipartisan action in the House comes just six weeks before the Biden administration plans to formally withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan and as the Taliban rapidly take control of large swaths of the country. It is unclear, however, if the Senate will act before the withdrawal deadline.
“The phrase ‘life-and-death gets tossed around a lot in this chamber, but this bill is truly that for thousands of our Afghan friends,” Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, said on the floor ahead of passage of his legislation to raise the special immigrant visa cap by 8,000 visas and remove some application requirements. “The Taliban is intent on hunting down and killing Afghans that have served alongside Americans the past 20 years.”
The State Department has issued 26,500 of these visas since 2014.
The 407-16 vote comes as many Afghan nationals say they fear for their lives.
The White House has endorsed the bill, which has broad bipartisan support.
“The Administration looks forward to working with Congress on this bill to ensure we are honoring our promises to those who stood with us at great risk to their personal lives and those of their families, and to whom we are indebted,” the White House said in the statement earlier this week.
Even so, lawmakers have yet to agree on a plan to get it through both chambers of Congress.
Moving the measure swiftly through Congress in the coming weeks would probably require a Senate agreement to take it up without the extended debate requirements that accompany most bills. To that end, any one senator could slow things down.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and long-time critic of the war in Afghanistan, has questioned whether Congress needs to act. Paul is well-known for blocking legislation, although he didn’t specifically say he would do so on an Afghan visa bill.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Appropriations committee, added a provision to an emergency spending measure on Capitol security that would raise the visa cap and appropriate $100 million for evacuation efforts. The Vermont Democrat is negotiating with the panel’s top Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, over the security package and it’s unclear whether Congress can approve any supplemental package before the summer recess in August.
Crow’s legislation is part of a sustained effort among lawmakers, particularly veterans of America’s longest war, to help evacuate interpreters, teachers, truck drivers and other Afghans who helped the coalition war effort over the last two decades. The House vote follows weeks of news conferences and intense behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to get the administration to act quickly.
The Pentagon said Monday that the first in a group of 2,500 Afghans in the Special Immigrant Visa program will be transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia, where they will complete the State Department-led process to move to the U.S. About 700 are applicants and the rest are family members, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
The Pentagon is considering other locations in the U.S. and overseas to house the applicants, Kirby said. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. government has had a “range of discussions” with third countries to take Afghan applicants while their requests are being processed and will reveal where some evacuees will go when it won’t affect their safety.
The White House plans to start flying people who worked with U.S. forces out of Afghanistan later this month. The flights will be to neighboring countries and will be for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who are already in the application pipeline for the Special Immigrant Visa program, a process that can take several years. The administration has asked three Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — to temporarily house the Afghans.
”The American handshake must matter,” Crow said. “We must be a country that honors our promises if we are to be a beacon of hope and democracy for the world.”