An amendment to the defense bill that would preserve the U.S. refugee program for endangered Afghan military interpreters was blocked from a vote in the Senate late last week, prompting outrage from advocacy groups and military veterans.
The amendment to the defense authorization bill would authorize the State Department to issue up to 4,000 additional U.S. visas through the Special Immigrant Visa program. The program is designed to provide visas to Afghans who worked with the United States in Afghanistan and are now under threat from the Taliban.
The State Department has said it is on track to run out of its current allotment of visas, potentially stranding thousands of Afghan interpreters and their families who are still on the waiting list.
After a dispute over which proposed amendments should be voted on, the Senate moved on Friday morning to end debate and proceed to vote on the defense authorization bill without added inclusions.
Supporters of the Afghan visa amendment said the final hope to get it passed is on Monday, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will attempt to introduce some of the hundreds of amendments that were blocked this week. It would likely need to pass by unanimous consent.
But if that fails, they said it would be the first time in four years that Congress has failed to issue new visas for the program. In prior years, Congress has provided for additional visas through the National Defense Authorization Act. Two Republicans, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Jeff Sessions, opposed the inclusion of additional visas in the current bill.
"We are deeply disappointed to see the Senate fail to allocate additional visas in the NDAA," said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, in a statement on Friday. "As Senator McCain passionately noted last night, this program is a matter of life and death for our Afghan allies. We will continue to work with Senators McCain, Graham, and Shaheen to protect these Afghans who have sacrificed for our country."
The potential blow to the SIV program has drawn concern from U.S. military leaders, including Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. He said the failure to continue the program could have national security implications.
Afghan interpreters, who often serve in combat with U.S. soldiers, are a top target for the Taliban. Many receive regular death threats, and some have been assassinated.
"These [Afghan] men and women who have risked their lives and have sacrificed much for the betterment of Afghanistan deserve our continued commitment," Nicholson wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain last month.
"Failure to adequately demonstrate a shared understanding of their sacrifices and honor our commitment to any Afghan who supports the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support missions could have grave consequences for these individuals and bolster the propaganda our enemies."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) pleaded with his colleagues to protect the program on Thursday night.
"They're going to die if we don't pass this amendment and take them out of harm's way," said McCain. "They're going to die. They're going to be killed. Doesn't that somehow appeal to your sense of compassion for these people?"
Matt Zeller, a former Army officer who runs the SIV advocacy group No One Left Behind, said he is concerned that the military won’t be able to recruit necessary interpreters if locals believe the United States won’t protect them when their lives are at risk.
"This is going to get people killed, not just the translators who we’re breaking faith with at this point, but also the troops we’re asking them to serve," said Zeller, who added that his group hopes the amendment will be passed in a last-ditch effort next week.