Members of Congress from both parties pressed the Biden administration to do more to help Afghans who have worked with American forces secure special immigrant visas to come to the US before troops withdraw from Afghanistan by a September 11 deadline.
At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Rep. Jason Crow, a veteran of the war, told a powerful story of an Afghan named “Mohammed” who had helped the US and whom Crow said was assassinated in January after being denied a special immigrant visa he applied for in 2010.
“Mohammed was driving to work with his 10-year-old son, when a Taliban vehicle stopped in front of him, assassins jumped out and gunned him down in front of his son,” said Crow. “All the while, those assassins yelled out, quote, ‘where are the American forces to save you? Where are their helicopters? Where are their airplanes? You helped them for a decade. Where are they now?’ “
Crow said the man’s son had subsequently received a death threat from the Taliban.
“He, and many others like him, will soon die unless we act,” said Crow.
Another veteran of the war, Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, said he knew an interpreter who “was executed along with members of his family simply for having documentation that he needed to get the SIV visa.”
“I can tell you these folks, these people who have stood with us, are being hunted down as we speak … and I believe when that last soldier goes wheels up, we have essentially handed them a death sentence,” Waltz said. “We need an evacuation plan, and time is of the essence.”
In response, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs David Helvey would only say that the administration is “working with our interagency partners to look at the different tools and the resources and the mechanisms to support those folks that have supported us.”
18,000 have applied for visas
The State Department has said that about 18,000 people who have applied for special immigrant visas to the US who are still awaiting approval, a process that can take years due to extensive vetting.
Afghans working for the US who have applied for the visas, including interpreters and translators, have described being under threat from the Taliban for helping US forces.
“I think it’s really important, certainly that the Department of Defense but the State Department, the whole-of-government, really sort of moves that up on the priority list to go forward to try and find a way to help the people who have helped us,” said the committee’s Democratic chairman Rep. Adam Smith.
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, said he agreed and blasted the administration’s state of planning for the future of Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal.
“What we’ve heard today when it comes to basing, when it comes to the visas for these people who’ve helped us, when it comes to training the Afghan forces going forward, we’re hearing, ‘we’re working on it,’” said Rogers. “I’m of the opinion this should’ve been resolved before you announced you were leaving … Before we consummate this withdrawal, we need to have it worked out, and have these things resolved.”
Crow got testy with Helvey after he appeared to be unsure of who was leading the interagency process on the special immigrant visas and getting the Afghans who have applied for them out of the country.
“We are working with the, through the interagency process to look at the different options,” said Helvey.
Pressed on who was leading the process, Helvey said, “I would believe State Department would be the lead.”
“You believe? Or do you know?” Crow fired back. “So you don’t know for sure?”
“I do not know for sure. It depends on what we’re talking about,” Helvey answered.
“We’re several weeks into this drawdown. We have no time left. There are lives of … our partners. People that we have an obligation to, not just a moral obligation, but a national security obligation. And you don’t know who the interagency lead is?” Crow asked forcefully.
Helvey concluded that State Department was the lead for special immigrant visas, but there was funding for the visas that had to be addressed through congressional funding.
Smith acknowledged that because each visa needed funding, there would need to be bipartisan support for the spending.
At least Republican lawmaker signaled interest in such a move.
“I would like to know how that cost is calculated, and I would like for us to find a solution sooner rather than later to make sure that we’re able to get those special immigrant visas issues for the people who have helped our US troops, our US mission in Afghanistan,” said GOP Rep. Austin Scott.
The visa program, established in 2009, is intended for Afghan citizens, along with their spouses and unmarried children under 21, who work for the US government in Afghanistan. It is a distinct program and doesn’t count toward the refugee cap, for which the White House has recently come under scrutiny.
The State Department says they have now increased resources and taken steps to prioritize applications from interpreters and translators, with extra consideration for those who helped in combat operations, according to a spokesperson. Those efforts include a temporary increase in consular staffing at the US Embassy in Kabul to assist with the visas.