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House Votes to Ease Entry Process for Afghan Interpreters

June 30, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON- A bipartisan bill that would speed up the refugee process for Afghans who assisted U.S. soldiers passed the House on Tuesday. It is part of the attempt to shield them from retaliation, which has become a pressing issue as American forces prepare for a withdrawal from Afghanistan in September. 

The bill, HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act, H.R. 3385, would waive the requirement that the incoming refugees receive a medical exam before entering the U.S. 

Supporters of the bill say that the in-country medical exam requirement is one of the factors slowing the refugee process, particularly since only a single place in Kabul handles the refugee exams for the whole country. The exams, they argue, can also cost the refugees thousands of dollars and are only valid for a short time period. Traveling to Kabul can also be extremely dangerous for some potential refugees.

Under the new guidelines proposed in the bill, refugees would be required to get a medical exam no later than 30 days after entering the U.S.

The bill is meant to speed up the Afghan SIV Program, which was created in 2009 as part of the Afghan Allies Protection Act. That program offers refugee status to Afghans who assisted the U.S. military in the War on Terror, often by serving as interpreters or translators. 

The sponsors of this recent bill have described the program as “plagued by delays,” putting the lives of those potential refugees at severe risk of retaliation by the Taliban. 

“The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program has been critical in providing safety for Afghans who worked as interpreters, contractors, and security personnel with the U.S. government in Afghanistan,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., in a written statement. 

“Yet, approximately 20,000 Afghans are currently stuck in the backlog. This bill is a commonsense solution that will help pave a more expeditious path to safety for these Afghans and their families.”

Without an expedited immigration process, Afghan interpreters and translators face persecution and death, materials from the sponsors of the bill argue.

“We believe America has both a moral and strategic responsibility to those who have helped us,” the sponsors of the bill wrote in an editorial earlier this month.

In that editorial, the sponsors told the story of a man named Mohammed who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and later as a DoD contractor and who was murdered in front of his son by the Taliban while waiting to receive a long-delayed Special Immigrant Visa.

“Make no mistake: the world is watching our withdrawal and whether we help those who helped us. If we fail to protect our current partners, it will be hard to find future ones,” they wrote.

Several prominent military personnel advocacy groups support the bill, including the American Legion, No One Left Behind, and the Special Operations Association of America.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup,R-Ohio, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, did a tour in Iraq as a combat surgeon where he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Action Badge, and he still serves as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, according to materials from his website.

“During my tour in Iraq, I worked alongside Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives to serve with us and help us complete our mission,” Wenstrup said during debate of the bill on the House floor, adding, “Many eventually used a similar program to escape harm’s way and to build a life in the United States. The two that I worked with and supported are now full U.S. citizens here in America. One is a cardiologist, and the other has a family practice.”

To fail to do everything within the country’s power to protect American allies would be a “black eye” on the U.S. and it would signal to future potential allies that America doesn’t live up to its promises, Wenstrup said.

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