Some lawmakers were skeptical, others cautiously optimistic, when President Biden announced Thursday plans to begin evacuating Afghan interpreters and other allies as the U.S. military complete a pullout by the end of next month.
Mr. Biden said flights will begin later this month to relocate those who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas, a State Department program designed for U.S. enablers, to third countries outside to await approval to come to America.
“There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” the president said.
The administration faced growing pressure to provide a safe haven for the Afghan allies, who are in danger of deadly reprisals by the Taliban when U.S. troops leave.
A State Department visa process has been ensnared in a backlog of close to 18,000 applicants from Afghanistan, which was estimated to take until next year to process.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, welcomed President Biden‘s announcement but said she remains concerned.
“I’m very encouraged by President Biden‘s effort to get our Afghan allies out of harm’s way, but I remain deeply concerned by the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said in a statement.
“It is critical that there is a clear plan in place in the days, weeks, and months ahead to maintain the progress made to advance women’s rights and to ensure the safety of our allies who risked their lives, and the safety of their families support of the U.S. mission,” she said.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Biden failed to provide details and a clear path forward.
“Nowhere in his speech did the president address how to protect Americans that will remain in the country, nor did he address the Taliban’s deadly resurgence, and we are still waiting to hear how exactly Biden will help the Afghans that stood alongside our service members,” he said.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he is still not confident the administration has a full grasp of the situation as troops withdraw.
“The Taliban is gaining more ground by the day, and there are targets on the backs of our people and our partners,” said Mr. McCaul. “But rather than taking the opportunity to reassure the American people there are sufficient plans in place to keep American diplomats and our Afghan partners safe, President Biden only offered more empty promises and no detailed plan of action.”
The administration said last month that it is preparing to relocate thousands of interpreters and others at risk of Taliban retaliation for their work for the U.S. during the nearly 20-year war, but provided few specifics.
Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat and a Marine veteran who served in the Iraq War, called on the administration to provide detail and to appoint a leadership team to get the job done.
During the announcement Thursday, Mr. Biden confirmed that he had appointed a point-person at the White House and at the State Department to coordinate the effort.
Kim Staffieri, founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, an organization that advocates for interpreters awaiting visa approval, said she still has concerns following President Biden‘s announcement. She said the Special Immigrant Visa process has been broken for years, and with the administration continuing to rely on it to facilitate the evacuation, she worries many interpreters will still be overlooked.
She also remained adamant that the applicants should be evacuated to the U.S. rather than a third country while they wait. She said a significant portion of applicants are denied on their first review and must go through a lengthy appeal process. There is no guarantee, she said, that the countries will not send them back to await the appeal.
Mr. Biden said during his announcement that his administration had worked to accelerate the Special Immigrant Visa approval process and 2,500 have already been approved under his administration.
“Up until now, fewer than half have exercised their right to do that,” Mr. Biden said. “Half have gotten on commercial flights and come, and the other half believe they want to stay, at least thus far.”
Ms. Staffieri said those that have been approved but have not yet taken the flight are likely unable to afford the airfare and are awaiting approval to purchase tickets through a loan program administered by the International Organization for Migration, which is normally approved weeks if not months after the visa is approved.
“They don’t have $7,000 set aside to make the trip to the U.S.,” she said.
She added that Mr. Biden‘s description of the circumstance as a choice on behalf of the visa recipient shows a disregard for the reality of the situation.