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Congress expands visas for Afghan interpreters

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class, Steve Larocque writes down a radio frequency used by the Taliban as an interpreter holds the radio out which is used by Afghan national police as an ANP officer watches at Nishagam, Afghanistan, July 15, 2009.

WASHINGTON — In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate on Friday passed legislation that will grant an additional 1,000 visas to Afghan interpreters who have worked for the U.S. military and are seeking a chance to come to the United States.

The measure was passed on a voice vote, following passage of similar legislation in the House earlier this week.

"Passage of this legislation enables us to continue visa issuances for these deserving individuals who faithfully served with us," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

As the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, an increasing number of interpreters have applied to come to the United States, in some cases out of fears of Taliban reprisal for their work with U.S.-led forces.

With the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program set to end in September, the new legislation expands the number of visas available to 4,000 for fiscal year 2014. As of July, there were around 6,000 applicants in the midst of the process, with about 300 whose cases were close to completion.

"The Senate’s quick approval of additional visas for Afghan translators is a testament to bipartisanship, hard work, and a commitment to keeping our promises to our allies," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a former Air Force pilot who served in Afghanistan, said in statement.

The State Department’s issuing of visas slowed to trickle in the fall of 2012, when it awarded just 32 visas for more than 5,700 applicants. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry ordered a review of the visa program, and in recent months interpreters have faced shorter wait times and a surge of available visas.

While advocates welcomed the expansion of the visa program, Kerry and other lawmakers hope to extend it through 2015 to help additional interpreters.

"More than 11,000 Afghans and their family members have benefited from SIV programs, and we are eager to welcome many more," Kerry said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., one of the main proponents of the program, echoed Kerry’s remarks, saying there is work to be done.

"We also must institute policy changes to better protect the families of these translators," Blumenauer said in a statement to The Washington Post. "And also to get translators who served NGOs or other international groups out of harm’s way."

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