A bipartisan group of 55 senators is urging President Joe Biden to quickly evacuate Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families and fully implement changes to the program signed into law in late July.
“The Taliban’s rapid ascendancy across Afghanistan and takeover of Kabul should not cause us to break our promise to the Afghans who helped us operate over the past twenty years and are counting on us for assistance,” the lawmakers, led by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, wrote in a letter obtained by CNN Thursday.
“American inaction would ensure they become refugees or prime targets for Taliban retribution,” they wrote.
The Biden administration pledged to assist the Afghans who worked for, and on behalf of, the US government and military during its two decade military campaign in Afghanistan, but has come under sharp scrutiny by lawmakers and advocates for not acting more quickly to relocate these Afghans and their families. The Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country has made relocation efforts fraught and dangerous. US troops and diplomats based at Kabul airport are scrambling to get US citizens and Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisal on to flights out of the country.
In their letter Thursday, the senators noted that the US military mission was “at every step of the way” aided “by Afghans who fought alongside us for a better future for their country.”
“They risked their safety and the well-being of their families to work with the United States. With the departure of U.S. forces and Taliban rule in place, the safety and security of our Afghan allies who put their lives on the line to help our service members and diplomats must be a top priority,” the letter said.
The lawmakers also called on the administration to fully implement the changes passed by Congress and signed into law in late July that are meant to improve and expedite the SIV program. Those changes included lowering the eligibility requirement for applicants from two years to one year of service and waiving the medical evaluation, removing the requirement that those who were employed by the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support performed “sensitive and trusted” activities and changes to the process of appealing denials.
In recent days, scenes of chaos played out around the airport in Kabul following the capital’s fall to the Taliban as Afghans made desperate attempts to reach evacuation flights out of the country.
The lawmakers urged “continued coordination between the Departments of State and Defense to secure and hold Hamid Karzai International Airport, including to allow for the continuation of military flights and the resumption of commercial and charter flights.”
“We also urge your Administration to assist with the passage of individuals to the airport to safety – both those within Kabul and those outside of the capital – as well as to consider cases where Afghans fleeing quickly may not have been able to collect or gather appropriate documents,” they wrote.
‘We must now concentrate all U.S. efforts on supporting and protecting our Afghan allies’
The US Embassy in Kabul advised on Wednesday that it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport, despite the Pentagon underscoring alleged Taliban assurances that it will ensure safe transit. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday, “We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport.”
“Our team in Doha and our military partners on the ground in Kabul are engaging directly with the Taliban to make clear that we expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals, and all Afghans who wish to leave to do so safely and without harassment,” she said.
In recent days, administration officials have said they will accelerate efforts to relocate SIV applicants as well as other vulnerable Afghans. The State Department said Tuesday that nearly 2,000 Afghan SIV applicants and their families have been relocated to the US, and Sherman told reporters, “Shortly, we will invite more than 800 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders to board flights to the United States.”
However, the number represents a mere fraction of the approximately 20,000 SIV applicants who are in some stage of the application process, and the tens of thousands of others who may be vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban.
The lawmakers said they “were pleased” that Biden swiftly signed into law legislation meant to improve the SIV program, “and now ask that you move just as quickly to ensure it is properly and fully implemented ensuring applicants and their families can get out of harm’s way.”
Last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that the “State Department can now accept results of the so-called fit-to-fly medical exam that Afghan special immigrants participating in Operation Allies Refuge relocation flights must undergo for purposes of visa issuance.”
CNN has reached out to the State Department about the implementation of all the changes to the program.
The senators told Biden, “We appreciate the efforts that you and your Administration have made on behalf of Afghans who worked in support of the U.S. in Afghanistan. We must now concentrate all U.S. efforts on supporting and protecting our Afghan allies.”
“Anything short of full implementation results in grave security implications,” the lawmakers told Biden. “You have the strong support of both chambers of Congress to ensure that no additional Afghan lives are needlessly lost.”