Senate Democrats’ supplemental spending bill for Capitol security would also make significant moves to protect Afghan interpreters and refugees as the U.S. military finishes its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The $3.7 billion measure, which Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., introduced Monday in response to the Jan. 6 riot, would increase the number of authorized Afghan special immigrant visas from 26,500 to 46,500.
The visas are intended to provide a safe haven for Afghan military allies facing retribution in their home country. Advocates estimate that about 18,000 people are currently on the visa waitlist.
“They must be included in this package, because the crisis is unfolding now,” Leahy said in a statement. “There is no dispute about the urgency and importance of standing with our Afghan allies, but regrettably the Republican proposal fails to address this matter.”
The legislation would reduce the employment requirement for eligibility from two years to one year, postpone the required medical exam until the applicant reaches the United States, overhaul the appeal process for denials and provide SIV status for family members of murdered applicants, among other changes.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sounded the alarm for months on the danger that Afghan military allies could face when the U.S. military is no longer present in the country. The Biden administration has promised to evacuate applicants to a safe third country while their claims are considered, but the details of that plan are not yet clear.
“There is a home for you in the U.S. if you so choose, and we will stand with you as you stood with us,” Biden said at a news conference on July 8.
During a separate State Department press briefing last week, spokesman Ned Price said only a select group of SIV applicants who have been deemed “at risk” will be eligible to wait in a third country while their applications are processed.
Immigrant and refugee advocates have raised concerns that some Afghans at risk of persecution by the Taliban would not qualify for the narrow parameters of the SIV program. Leahy’s bill would address that by promising significant funds for general refugee assistance in the area.
The measure includes $100 million in “emergency aid” for Afghan refugees, citing United Nations estimates that 500,000 Afghans will flee their homes in the coming months as the Taliban gains ground in the country.
Senate Republicans want a much narrower bill that would address only Capitol security, setting up a political battle later this month. Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., released his own $632.9 million security bill on Monday that does not include any provisions to aid Afghan interpreters and refugees.
“Funding for the Capitol Police and National Guard must not be held hostage because the Democrats insist on billions more in spending that lacks full support at this time,” Shelby said in a statement. “The clock is ticking. Let’s pass what we all agree on.”