ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Afghan citizens who have helped American forces in that country are being told that they can no longer apply for special immigrant visas to the U.S. Afghanistan is not included in the Trump administration's ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. This is a separate issue. The State Department issues visas that are meant to reward and protect allies who have worked alongside U.S. personnel. Here to explain this is NPR's Quil Lawrence. Hi, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: Well, explain it. The State Department has no more visas for these people?
LAWRENCE: This is a program that's been around for several years. Congress passed the special immigrant visa program in order to make good on a promise that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had been making to local nationals, that if they helped out - mostly as interpreters - they'd be able to bring their families to the USA. So each year, Congress has pushed to authorize a certain number of visas for the State Department to give out to these Iraqis and Afghans. Last year, for the first time, they failed to push that through. A later measure approved only 1,400 visas. The State Department tells NPR that about 15,000 Afghans are already in this application process. So those 1,400 visas are clearly already taken up.
SIEGEL: Well, what does this mean then for Afghans who were eligible for those visas?
LAWRENCE: And the most extreme cases, these folks are marked for death, really credible death threats by the Taliban or even now ISIS who are taking back parts of Afghanistan that the U.S. and their Afghan allies fought to secure. I've spoken to Afghans who go into hiding when there's a hiccup in the visa program, which I should say has been full of hiccups since it started in 2008. American military veterans are some of the most sort of - strongest proponents of this program. I spoke to Zach Iscol (ph), who's a combat-decorated Marine, and he says that these people have been very heavily vetted at war.
ZACH ISCOL: I can't think of anybody more deserving to be welcome to our shores than somebody who has already sacrificed for our country. It's not just a quid pro quo. Hey, you help me out, I'm going to help you get to America. It's taking care of those who took care of us when we were in their country.
SIEGEL: Quil, the general commanding U.S. troops in Afghanistan just told Congress that he'd like more boots on the ground there to turn back the Taliban. Could this visa issue affect American forces on the ground in Afghanistan?
LAWRENCE: That's the other point that veterans and some in the active military are making is that there's an issue of American credibility in the next war. People who say they're going to help U.S. forces, will they do that if they see that these promises have been broken? Or as you just said, with more troops maybe going to Afghanistan or perhaps troops in Iraq or Syria right now, they need these people to rely on to be their eyes and ears, especially in a counterinsurgency fight. And one veteran said to me, well, good luck with whatever war you want to fight next if you're going to break this promise to people who help you out.
SIEGEL: And, Quil, to return to this gap between the number of people who have been approved for such visas and the number of visas issued, can anyone other than Congress issue more visas?
LAWRENCE: No. It looks like Congress has to reauthorize this, and there's already some proponents in Congress. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican John McCain have been the regular sponsors. They're going to try it again. But there is concern about the political climate in Washington right now and that it might be harder to get it through.
SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Robert.
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