The Senate unanimously passed an extension to the U.S. visa program for at-risk Afghan translators who worked alongside U.S. troops on Friday, shortly after the number of available visas ran out and hours before Congress was set to leave for summer break.
The move to authorize an additional 1,000 visas was a small spot of bipartisan unity amid congressional gridlock, as senators bickered over final legislative actions before heading to August recess. The House of Representatives also passed the measure by unanimous consent on Wednesday.
The program—which provides U.S. visas for Afghan military translators who are living under threat of Taliban retribution attacks—has been criticized over the years by refugee advocates for its bureaucracy, opaqueness, and slow pace.
However, advocates say that recent reforms to the program have improved it to the point where this is the first year the U.S. State Department has run out of the number of visas it was authorized by Congress to distribute.
“The State Department ran out of visas for the first time ever in Afghanistan. It’s great but we need more,” said 1st Lt. Matt Zeller, who runs the group No One Left Behind and has been on Capitol Hill this week lobbying along with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project for an additional 1,000 visas.
Zeller praised the passage of the extension in the House on Wednesday.
“When was the last thing that passed unanimously?” he told the Washington Free Beacon. “The last amendment was the renaming of a post office.”
“Everyone realized it was a national security issue, everybody realized it was the word of the United States and its honor that was on the line,” Zeller added.
The plight of Afghan translators has received increased media attention as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving U.S. partners open to payback attacks from the Taliban.
Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) and Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who spearheaded the visa extension in the House, praised the program on Wednesday for helping bring Afghan translators “who served shoulder-to-shoulder with our troops, to safety in the United States.”
“A failure to provide these additional visas ensures the many brave translators the U.S. promised to protect in exchange for their service would be left in Afghanistan, hiding, their lives still threatened daily by the Taliban,” the congressmen said in a statement.
They added that the State Department has been distributing an average of 400 visas per month in 2014, after reforms—including the appointment of a coordinator between the State Department and the agencies that conduct security and background vetting of the visa candidates—were made to the program.