No New Visas for Afghan Allies Allocated in Senate Defense Bill

Effort stalls despite widespread support for program

Afghan interpreter
U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Zachary Bennett talks with Afghan interpreter who goes by HM, during a joint patrol in Helmand province in 2009 / AP

The defense authorization bill passed by the U.S. Senate this week failed to preserve a visa program for Afghans who worked in support of U.S. military operations, but advocates say they will continue to fight to save it in an upcoming appropriations bill.

For the first time in four years, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bills in both the House and Senate did not authorize the State Department to allocate additional visas for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which provides visas to at-risk Afghans who worked with U.S. forces. The program is scheduled to run out of slots by October, according to the State Department.

Procedural squabbles among senators prevented them from voting on an NDAA amendment to save the program last week, and a last-ditch effort by Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to revive the amendment failed on Tuesday.

SIV advocates said they are looking for other legislative routes to save the program, including as an add-on to the 2017 defense appropriations bill.

They blamed the disorganized legislative process for the setback, noting that there is near-total support for the SIV program among members of congress.

"This is not that you have a majority of folks that are opposed to SIVs. If [the Senate] were to take a vote today on just the issue of SIVs, you would very likely have 100 votes for it," said Scott Cooper, the national security outreach director for Human Rights First. "But the Senate can’t figure out how to get itself organized enough to pass amendments and bills like that."

The Senate was prepared to vote on an NDAA amendment to allocate additional visas last week, but the process collapsed after an unexpected last-minute floor fight on Thursday.

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) objected to the fact that his proposal to prevent the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens was not included in a package of amendments being considered for the NDAA.

Other senators blocked a vote on Lee’s measure, and the holdup prevented debate from moving forward on other amendments, including the one to preserve the SIV program.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who co-sponsored the measure, tore into his colleagues on the Senate floor, noting that Afghans who worked with U.S. troops are being targeted for assassination by the Taliban.

"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?"

Although Senate Majority Leader McConnell included the SIV measure in an NDAA amendments bundle on Tuesday, the package did not pass unanimous consent and was not included on the final bill.

SIV advocates said their next focus would be on the upcoming defense appropriations. While amendments are rarely allowed on appropriations legislation, supporters are hoping this issue will be an exception.

"There have been other long-ball shots that have been attached to appropriations," said Cooper, citing the Detainee Treatment Act, introduced by McCain in 2005. "There is a chance. And I hope they’ll do the right thing there."