A last minute budget to fund the federal government through the rest of 2017 includes money to help as many as 2,500 Afghans who helped U.S. forces during the war there emigrate to America.
The so-called "Special Immigrant Visa" program allows Afghans who have supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and face threats as a result of their service to apply for refuge in the United States, supporters say.
Advocates who've pushed for more visas say Afghans who helped U.S. forces are under near constant threat by Taliban and ISIS sympathizers in that war torn country and the SIV program is critical to saving lives.
After more than six years, Robert Ham finally welcomed friend and former interpreter Saifullah Haqmal to San Antonio, Feb. 16. Ham, now an Army Reserve staff sergeant with the 311th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) in Los Angeles, worked with his congressional representatives and the State Department to bring the Haqmal family to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Robert Ham/released)
"The increased number of visas is a great relief for our Afghan allies who risked their lives alongside us," says retired Marine Lt. Col. Scott Cooper, who's the director of Veterans for American Ideals.
"Many of our service members are alive and were able to come home because of these brave wartime partners," he told WATM.
The SIV program has been under constant threat, as some lawmakers — including now Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions who was previously the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — argued the waivers could have allowed potential terrorists into the U.S.
But advocates said the SIV applicants are some of the most thoroughly vetted immigrants allowed into the country and have already proven themselves loyal in battle.
Since the SIV program began in 2013, more than 43,000 allies from Iraq and Afghanistan — along with their families — have been resettled in the U.S.
The State Department reportedly shut down the program for lack of funding earlier this year at a time the Afghan allies faced increasing threats from a resurgent Taliban and the so-called ISIS-affiliated Khorisan Group.
Advocates claim there are still about 30,000 Afghan and Iraqi citizens whose lives are at risk for helping U.S. forces. The new money means the program can be started back up immediately, Cooper said.
Some lawmakers applauded the new money for the SIV program, calling it a "lifesaving development."
"Allowing this program to lapse would send the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them," said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
"Going forward, it's critical that Congress overcome obstruction to this program and regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship. The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance."