Visa Program for Afghans Under Threat for Helping U.S. Is Renewed
WASHINGTON — After a protracted political debate, Congress passed a measure on Thursday that would offer sanctuary to a fraction of the Afghan interpreters and translators who have risked their lives to help the military.
The measure, included in an annual military policy bill, renews the nearly nine-year-old visa program for Afghans facing serious threats because they assisted American troops. The Senate passed the broader, $619 billion legislation, 92 to 7, sending it to President Obama for his signature.
But the renewal added just 1,500 extra visas, not nearly enough to cover the approximately 13,000 pending applications, and imposes more eligibility restrictions on an already complicated process.
The fix may not be enough to save the program — and the Afghans who are anxiously hoping it will be their deliverance from the Taliban and other threats, said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.
“I think it’s clear that we will run out of those visas,” she said.
Last summer, a handful of Republican lawmakers disrupted what has become a somewhat regular allocation of visas to the program, questioning the cost of the 4,000 additional visas requested by the Obama administration this year and, in one case, tying them up procedurally to force consideration of unrelated legislation.
Now, the fate of the visa program will hinge on a government led by President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has yet to say how he will handle an issue that is championed by the military but would also bring more Muslim immigrants to the United States.
There is some cautious optimism that the more members of the military there are among Mr. Trump’s advisers, the more likely he is to support the program. Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former commander of American forces in Afghanistan who is reportedly under consideration for secretary of state, is among those who have argued the United States has made a commitment to protect those Afghans — one that would hurt the country’s credibility overseas if abandoned.
“By failing to allocate sufficient visas to provide our Afghan allies with a path to safety, we fail to keep the faith with them — and with our troops and diplomats who rely on them to succeed in their mission,” Betsy Fisher, the policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement last week.
It was a relatively subdued conclusion for the broader bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, which set off bitter disputes this year about workplace protections for gay men and lesbians employed by federal contractors, and about efforts to restrict the Confederate flag. It also prompted a debate about whether women should be required to register for the draft, a measure that was ultimately cut from the final bill.
Republicans trumpeted in particular the fact that the bill would offer troops their largest pay increase since 2010, a raise of 2.1 percent, as well as an overhaul of the troubled health care system for veterans. The legislation will also make changes to the acquisitions office at the Pentagon, splitting it into two to separate its more cutting-edge research work from daily tasks like managing contracts.
The bill will lay the framework for the Pentagon that Mr. Trump will soon inherit, leaving it up to the next Congress to set aside the money to fund many of those policies. Mr. Trump said during his campaign that he would toss out the military budget caps known as sequestration, opening the door to more spending. Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said on Tuesday that lawmakers will quickly take up spending bills early next year.
Democrats expressed some reservations about the legislation, which totaled more than $3 billion above Mr. Obama’s budget request. While officials have not yet said whether Mr. Obama will sign it, Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, recently told reporters there were parts of the legislation that were “encouraging.”
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