The House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to expand a visa program for Afghans who are facing retribution for helping American troops and diplomats during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, moving to allow more of them to immigrate to the United States quickly as the Biden administration races to evacuate them.
With Afghans who helped the U.S. personnel now facing threats from the Taliban as American troops withdraw, a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress — led by military veterans who have worked alongside interpreters or fixers in combat zones themselves — has raced to give the administration wider latitude to airlift them to safety.
By a vote of 407-16, the House moved on Thursday to expand the number of available special immigrant visas for Afghans to 19,000 from 11,000 and broaden the universe of people eligible for them by removing some application requirements.
“Many of us have expressed grave concerns about the challenges our allies face in navigating the application process,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Administration Committee. “Afghans stepped forward to serve aside our brave military.”
Under the legislation, applicants would no longer have to provide a sworn statement that they faced a specific threat or proof that they held a “sensitive and trusted” job. Instead, the measure would in effect stipulate that any Afghan who helped the U.S. government by definition faces retribution, and should be able to apply for a visa.
The legislation also strengthens protections for surviving spouses and children, allowing them to retain eligibility if an applicant dies or is killed before his or her visa is approved. Each visa applicant is allowed to include up to four family members, limited to their spouse and unmarried children under the age 21.
The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where there is bipartisan support for the Afghan visa program, but funding for its expansion has been embroiled in a broader fight over spending on Capitol security. The same is true for another measure the House passed recently that would waive a requirement for applicants to undergo medical examinations in Afghanistan before qualifying for visas.
Both pieces of legislation aim to shorten the long wait for permission to enter the United States, which can last as long as seven years for some applicants.
Even with the bill passed on Thursday, the application process is still expected to take more than a year — long after the American withdrawal.
Sixteen Republicans opposed the measure, which some of them argued did not contain strong enough vetting for the Afghans who helped American troops. Others argued that the bill was simply misguided at a time when Congress should be more strictly limiting immigration, not making it easier.
But those arguments were rejected by Representative Michael Waltz, Republican of Florida and a former Green Beret who still serves as a colonel in the national guard. He referenced an interpreter he served with in Afghanistan, nicknamed “Spartacus,” who he said had been beheaded along with members of his family for helping Americans.
“The legislation does not diminish or circumvent the screening process,” Mr. Waltz said. “Trust me, before these men and women were allowed to work with our units, they were heavily vetted.”
The legislation, spearheaded by Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger, has widespread support in both parties.
“Some members of this body, including me, may not be here without the service and sacrifice of Afghans who answered the call to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with us,” Mr. Crow said.
Its consideration comes as the Biden administration has announced plans to evacuate an initial tranche of Afghans to an Army base in Virginia in the coming days. About 2,500 Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with American forces, as well as their family members, will be sent in stages to Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond, to await final processing for formal entry into the United States, officials said.
With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under heavy pressure to protect the Afghan allies.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, said the Afghans have a “bull’s-eye on their back.”
“They will be killed if we don’t get them out of there,” Mr. McCaul said. “Please, Mr. President, get them out before they are killed.”
Some of the Afghans awaiting visas have spoken out about the threats they face from the Taliban.
Since 2014, the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind has tracked the killings of more than 300 translators or their family members, many of whom died while waiting for their visas to be processed, according to James Miervaldis, the group’s chairman and an Army Reserve noncommissioned officer.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been caught in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, which are available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. The applicants have 53,000 family members, U.S. officials have said.