Afghan Refugees

Congress extends Afghan visa program, but it may be the last time

Afghan children in their home at the Balmoral Arms apartment in Arden Arcade in Sacramento, California.
Afghan children in their home at the Balmoral Arms apartment in Arden Arcade in Sacramento, California. Sacramento Bee

A program to let Afghans who helped the American military resettle in the United States survived skeptical lawmakers and passed the Senate on Thursday, opening the possibility of new Afghan refugees joining more than 2,000 already in Sacramento County.

The Defense Department policy bill extends the program through 2017 and provides an additional 1,500 special immigrant visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. as interpreters, translators or in other roles.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, supported the measure but said it doesn’t go far enough. She said there’s a need for more visas and resettlement help for the Afghans, many of whom face poverty in the U.S.

“I’m pleased that we have taken a step forward by extending the program. But our work is not yet done. I’ll continue to advocate for the improvement of the resettlement process for these families in Sacramento and across the United States,” Matsui said.

A Sacramento Bee report in June revealed poverty and crime suffered by the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders and their families who have been resettled in Sacramento County.

They’ve been unable to find work beyond minimum wage jobs and many have been placed in apartments that are infested with cockroaches and bedbugs. More of the Afghan refugees have been resettled in Sacramento County than in any other county in California.

Matsui responded to the Bee’s report by asking the Government Accountability Office to evaluate how to improve the resettlement. Matsui said the GAO study has begun and she’s eager for ideas on reform.

Matsui also thinks more visas are needed. More than 10,000 Afghans and their families have applied to use the visa program, and advocates say the additional 1,500 visas in the bill falls far short of the need.

Betsy Fisher, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said the Afghan interpreters face death threats and attacks for helping the U.S.

“The United States will keep over 8,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. By failing to allocate sufficient visas to provide our Afghan allies with a path to safety, we fail to keep the faith with them – and with our troops and diplomats who rely on them to succeed in their mission,” Fisher said.

The Senate voted to extend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a host of measures, including language letting California National Guard members keep enlistment bonuses illegally awarded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unless the soldiers “knew or reasonably should have known” they weren’t eligible.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House earlier and now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

There’s growing skepticism in Congress about the Afghan visa program, though, and those doubts are likely to grow with the election of Republican Donald Trump on a hardline immigration platform.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who Trump nominated for attorney general, has objected to increasing the number of visas and said “just because you’ve got applicants doesn’t mean every one of them is deserving of acceptance.”

The Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels, questions the vetting of the Afghan applicants and just how long the visa program will continue.

Those concerns didn’t stop negotiators from adding the Afghan visas into the broader defense bill that was sure to pass Congress. But the long-term fate of the visa program is uncertain.

“The United States promised to protect these Afghans and I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure Congress doesn’t renege on that promise,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who helped lead efforts in the Senate to renew the program.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham