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Defense bill includes 3,500 more visas for Afghans who helped US troops

The annual defense policy bill would provide 3,500 more visas for Afghans who helped U.S. troops.

“The conferees believe the special immigrant visa program continues to be critical for the U.S. government’s operations in Afghanistan,” a conference report released Thursday says.

The special immigrant visa program is meant to help Afghans facing threats to their lives for serving as interpreters or otherwise assisting U.S. troops.

The program nearly lapsed earlier this year due to a lack of available visas. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul stopped interviewing applicants in March and said it would not start again until Congress acted.

Congress ultimately approved 2,500 more visas as part of a government spending bill in May, which prevented the program from lapsing.

The Senate-passed version of this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would have added another 4,000 visas to the program.

But the House-passed version did not include any more visas.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), an ardent supporter of the program, applauded the compromise of 3,500 visas in the final bill, saying she hopes this is the “first of many” investments in the visa program.

“Afghan civilian interpreters risk their safety and the welfare of their families to aid US forces,” Shaheen said in a statement. “Their service to our nation and mission in Afghanistan has saved American lives on and off the battlefield. I’m glad to see support from Congress for my effort to authorize additional visas so we can ensure the protection of our courageous interpreters and support staff.”

The visa program for Afghans started in 2009 with 1,500 annually through 2013. More visas were easily approved in 2014, but another increase became more of a fight in 2016 as anti-immigration sentiment grew.