A bipartisan group of U.S. senators Wednesday introduced legislation which calls for an increase in the number of visas available to Afghans who helped U.S. forces in positions such as interpreters.
The bill calls for an extra 2,500 Special Immigrant Visas specifically for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military, often risking their lives.
"This legislation would ensure the continuation of this vital Special Immigrant Visa program, and send a clear message that America will not turn its back on those who at great personal risk stand with us in the fight against terror," Senator John McCain said in a statement.
McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced the measure alongside fellow Republican Thom Tillis, Jack Reed, the committee's top Democrat, and another Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen.
Faced with a shrinking pool of visas, the U.S. embassy in Kabul has started turning away Afghan military interpreters and other Afghan nationals seeking to immigrate to the United States through the decade-old special visa program.
A State Department official said Friday the embassy stopped scheduling new special immigrant visa interviews for Afghans on March 1 after concluding that it had enough unused visas only for those who are already in the final stages of the application process.
The Special Immigrant Visa program was created by Congress in 2008 for Afghan military translators, but was later expanded to cover any Afghan who could demonstrate "at least one year of faithful and valuable service" to or on behalf of the U.S. government.
With tens of thousands of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan, the program long enjoyed bipartisan support, with Congress extending it annually and authorizing 7,000 visas in 2015 and 2016.
As the U.S. combat mission is winding down and anti-immigrant sentiment sparked during the recent presidential campaign continues to rise, opposition to the program has grown.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime critic of the program, led an effort last year against increasing the number of Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans.