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An interpreter from Iraq, nicknamed Phillip Morris, left, came to America through the special immigrant visa program with help from a soldier, Paul Braun, right, who he worked with in Iraq.
An interpreter from Iraq, nicknamed Phillip Morris, left, came to America through the special immigrant visa program with help from a soldier, Paul Braun, right, who he worked with in Iraq. (Public Broadcasting Service)
An interpreter from Iraq, nicknamed Phillip Morris, left, came to America through the special immigrant visa program with help from a soldier, Paul Braun, right, who he worked with in Iraq.
An interpreter from Iraq, nicknamed Phillip Morris, left, came to America through the special immigrant visa program with help from a soldier, Paul Braun, right, who he worked with in Iraq. (Public Broadcasting Service)
Zabihullah Bayan, 29, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military, prepares to leave Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family on a special immigrant visa, on Oct. 10, 2019. The program, which was due to expire, is slated to be extended by Congress.
Zabihullah Bayan, 29, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military, prepares to leave Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family on a special immigrant visa, on Oct. 10, 2019. The program, which was due to expire, is slated to be extended by Congress. (J.P. Lawrence/Stars and Stripes)
Zabihullah Bayan, 29, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military, prepares to leave Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family on a special immigrant visa, on Oct. 10, 2019. The program, which was due to expire, is slated to be extended by Congress.
Zabihullah Bayan, 29, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military, prepares to leave Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family on a special immigrant visa, on Oct. 10, 2019. The program, which was due to expire, is slated to be extended by Congress. (J.P. Lawrence/Stars and Stripes)

A program that provides visas to interpreters who worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan has gone from endangered to potentially expanded following House passage of a $738 billion defense policy bill.

If signed into law, the National Defense Authorization Act will provide 4,000 more special immigrant visas, raising the total cap to 22,500, a figure arrived at in a Senate conference report preceding the House vote Wednesday.

Of those 22,500, more than 12,000 Afghan interpreters have already been granted visas since the program began in 2008. Another 9,000 are already having their applications considered.

“We’re happy that there are more visas being authorized. It’s important for Congress to keep the promise it made to people who put their lives at risk,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “The authorization of 4,000 more visas is a good step to ensure there continue to be visas available.”

Advocacy groups for Afghan interpreters feared the program would expire. A similar program for Iraqi interpreters expired in 2014, forcing those translators to go through an alternative refugee program that has a backlog of more than 100,000 people.

Former military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan have repeatedly been targeted by anti-U.S. groups following their service.

The 2020 NDAA also includes a requirement for the State Department Inspector General to evaluate the SIV program, and how to reduce delays in interagency processing and security checks.

“There is not enough information about how this program is being run,” Bates said. “It’s a positive step to have more information so Congress can exercise its oversight responsibilities.”

Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump have expressed support for the NDAA, which is expected to be signed into law.

“We appreciate Congress for their continued support on our SIV applicants,” said Zia Ghafoori, a former Afghan interpreter for two Medal of Honor recipients, Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer and Master Sgt. Matthew Williams.

Ghafoori now lives in America after going through the SIV process and assists others arriving through the program.

The visa program “is a life-saving process,” Ghafoori said.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com Twitter: @jplawrence3

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