By: Jessica Wehrman, Columbus Dispatch
WASHINGTON — A bill authorizing U.S. defense programs would extend an initiative pushed by Rep. Steve Stivers to protect Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. service members during the war in Afghanistan, but falls short of the increase he had sought.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday by a 33-24 vote, included a measure that would extend through 2020 and increase by 300 the number of visas offered under a federal program that provides visas to Afghans who worked with U.S. military forces. Stivers had sought 4,000 new visas.
In all, the chairman’s markup of the bill would allow for 18,800 such visas to be approved between 2015 and 2020. The $733 billion defense bill now advances to the House floor. A Senate version of the defense bill awaits Senate approval.
Stivers’ proposal, introduced in May, would authorize 4,000 new visas and required the State Department to report to Congress on the obstacles to protecting Iraqi and Afghan allies, and suggestions for improving the program. The fiscal year 2019 spending bill authorized 3,500 such visas — far short of the backlog to accommodate the nearly 20,000 Afghans awaiting entry to the U.S.
A spokesman for Rep. Seth Moulton, a co-sponsor, said the Massachusetts Democrat introduced an amendment Thursday that would’ve increased the number of visas to 4,000, but had to withdraw the measure because the cost of the increase in visas could not be assessed in time. The spokesman said Moulton plans to keep pushing for the increase.
For Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican who served as a battalion commander Iraq in 2004 and 2005, the issue is personal: He worked with Iraqi interpreters during his time abroad and is well aware that after the drawdown, many of the interpreters he came to rely on were targeted by ISIS. “Staying in Iraq was a giant risk for them,” he said.
“People are waiting to come in and while they wait, their families are being killed, they’re being threatened and killed,” he said. “If we don’t look out for them, how can we ask the next group of people in whatever country we might end up in to help us when they know we didn’t help the people who helped us last time?
“These people stood beside us literally as we did what we needed to do. We need to stand by them now and allow them to come to the United States.”