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U.S. Senate Approves Funds For 2,500 More Afghan Special Immigrant Visas

U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller (left) sits with translator Janis Shenwari, whom he credits for saving his life in a firefight in Afghanistan in November 2008, during an interview in November 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has approved the funding of 2,500 additional immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters and support staff who have helped U.S. troops and government officials in Afghanistan.

The financing was included as part of a $1.1 trillion bipartisan spending bill that provides funds to keep the U.S. government running through September while lawmakers try to come to an agreement on a new federal budget.

The Senate approved the spending bill on May 4 after the House of Representatives passed the bill on May 3. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire) has called the approval of the 2,500 additional immigrant visas a "potentially life-saving development."

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was designed specifically to help Afghans who face threats to their lives from extremists because they have helped the U.S. military or were support staff for the U.S. government in Afghanistan.

The International Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based advocacy group for refugees trying to enter the United States, has estimated that the Taliban or other extremists in Afghanistan kill one Afghan every day who is eligible for protection under the SIV program.

But in March, the process for interviewing and vetting Afghan applicants was put on hold.

That's because the number of applicants in the final stages of the program already exceeded the 1,437 visas that remained available at the time.

Without additional funds for more visas under the program, the U.S. State Department says the remaining visas will run out by the end of May.

"Going forward, it's critical that Congress overcome obstruction to this program and regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship," Shaheen said on May 1. "The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance."

Some 15,000 Afghan applicants are still at some stage of the process under the program.

Those who apply include Afghans who have served as translators in the battlefield with U.S. or NATO forces, as well as support staff for intelligence or other operations within U.S. military bases or U.S. government facilities in Afghanistan.

In order to qualify, Afghan applicants must go through a difficult and lengthy vetting process that usually takes at least five years and requires letters of recommendation from senior U.S. military officers or U.S. government officials in Afghanistan.

Applicants also must be interviewed by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as part of the vetting process before actually receiving the special visas.

With reporting by Mark Najarian in Washington