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Dem senator hopes to tie defense spending bill to visas for Afghans who helped US troops

By: Rebecca Kheel

The Hill

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Tuesday she is hoping to tackle the shortage of visas for Afghans who helped U.S. troops in the upcoming Department of Defense spending bill.

“I’m hoping to try and address it as the spending bill for DOD comes over, and I’m going to keep raising it every opportunity I have,” Shaheen told The Hill.

A defense spending bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2017 is awaiting a Senate vote after the House passed it last week.

Last week, the State Department confirmed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has stopped interviewing applicants for what are known as special immigrant visas due to a lack of available visas. The department said it doesn't expect to restart interviews until Congress acts.

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

The National Defense Authorization Act passed in December added 1,500 visas to the 3,500 visas that were left at that point and reauthorized the program for four years. It also tightened requirements for who could get visas to those considered in the most danger.

As of March 5, just 1,437 visas remain and the number of applicants in the final stage of the process is enough to use all those, the State Department said last Friday.

But there are more than 15,000 Afghans at some stage in the application process.

Shaheen has been an ardent supporter of the program, leading a failed effort last year with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to add 4,000 visas to the program.

She said she also plans to introduce legislation on the issue later this week or early next week.

Shaheen said some of the 15,000 cited by the State Department may already have a visa in the works, so it’s unclear to her how many Afghans still need visas.

As such, she hasn’t settled on exactly how many more visas she’ll seek in her legislation.

“It’s not clear to me that that’s an accurate number in terms of those. Some of those people are already in the pipeline,” she said about the State Department’s figure. “So I don’t have an answer for you because we’re still trying to get that information.”