WASHINGTON — In an effort to assist Afghans who face retaliation in their home country for assisting American troops, the House voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to expedite the process that would allow them to immigrate to the United States.
With the American military in the final stages of withdrawing from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, more than 18,000 Afghans who have worked for the US as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, and embassy clerks have become mired in a bureaucratic quagmire after applying for Special Immigrant Visas, which are available to people who face threats because of their work for the US government.
“I can confidently say that I would not be here today if it hadn’t been for these men and women,” said Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado and a former Army Ranger who is the bill’s lead sponsor.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 366 to 46, would eliminate the requirement for applicants to undergo medical examinations in Afghanistan before qualifying, instead allowing them to do so after entering the United States. The first in a series of bipartisan bills aimed at smoothing the visa process, it aims to shorten the lengthy waiting period, which for some applicants can be as long as six or seven years.
Mr. Crow estimated that eliminating the medical examination requirement would save the average applicant about a month in visa processing time. The bill requires applicants to complete their exams within 30 days of their arrival in the United States.
“Every hour counts in combat and in a war zone,” Mr. Crow said. “A month can save a lot of lives.”
Some of the “Afghan allies” awaiting visas have spoken out about the Taliban’s threats.
According to James Miervaldis, the group’s chairman and an Army Reserve noncommissioned officer, the nonprofit No One Left Behind has tracked the deaths of more than 300 translators or their family members since 2014. Many of them died while waiting for their visas to be processed.
“It is a life and death situation,” said Ohio Republican Representative Brad Wenstrup. “It will be a disgrace to the United States if we do not do everything in our power to protect our allies.”
Mr. Crow and Representative Cliff Bentz, Republican of Oregon, both stated that staff members had worked tirelessly in recent weeks to allay the fears of some House Republicans who were concerned that eliminating the medical examination requirement would lead to the spread of disease once the applicants entered the United States. To allay those fears, they added the 30-day deadline.
The bill is one of several proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom are military members or veterans who have worked with translators, drivers, and fixers in Afghanistan and other conflict zones.
The group has also urged the Biden administration to conduct a mass evacuation of Afghans awaiting visas, an idea that President Biden supported last week, saying, “Those who helped us will not be left behind.”
However, the Afghans must first qualify for visas. The examinations are only performed at one clinic in the country, a German facility in Kabul, requiring some people to travel long distances in dangerous conditions. And the exams are costly, according to Mr. Crow.
A separate bill introduced by the group would broaden the pool of eligible Afghans by eliminating what its supporters call “burdensome” application requirements, such as a “credible sworn statement” of a specific threat and proof of employment in a “sensitive and trusted” position. Instead, it would effectively state that any Afghan who assisted the US government faced retaliation and should be able to apply for a visa. In addition, the bill would increase the number of visas available.
Officials in the Biden administration have stated that the Afghan allies will be relocated outside of Afghanistan, possibly to Guam, while their visa applications are processed.