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Sen. King On Legislation That Would Expedite Visas For Afghans Who Helped U.S. Troops

Angus King
Robert F. Bukaty
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks at Acadia National Park, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Winter Harbor, Maine.

U.S. troops are nearly all out of Afghanistan, but many of the Afghans who helped them these past 20 years are still there and want to leave, fearing for their future in any Taliban takeover.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with Maine Independent Sen. Angus King about legislation he's co-sponsoring that would make it easier for those Afghans to get visas to come to the U.S.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

King: This is a very serious issue.

Gratz: Well, first talk about what would this legislation do.

King: It would increase the number of authorized visas for these people that, the number that have been authorized in prior legislation isn't high enough. It would do things like postponing a required medical exam until they got to the United States or to another place of safety. They would still have to have the medical exam, but it wouldn't be a barrier to leaving Afghanistan. The idea is to expedite this process, because these people are in grave danger, and every day that goes by increases that danger.

The Biden administration has said it has plans to evacuate these individuals at least to third countries while their visa processing work goes on. Is that not good enough at this point?

That's a help, but I want to see the details. They've said that several times. But to my knowledge, there are no concrete plans along those lines. In the recent past, it's taken up to 600 days to process one of these visas and as you noted, we're going to be out of there in about 30 days. This is a moral and ethical obligation and a strategic imperative. If we don't save these people, who's going to ever help us again, in a situation like this? These are people that literally have put their lives on the line for this country, and it's the least we can do is try to protect them in this situation where we're leaving the country. We're talking about 15 to 20,000 people, and I was disappointed that we closed Bagram Air Force Base so precipitously last week, because that was one of the areas where we could have used transports to get people out. If I sound frustrated and concerned, I am. This is this will be a stain on this country for a generation. If we don't get this right.

One of the provisions in the bill would remove a requirement for a credible sworn statement regarding the threat that an applicant faces. Is that an appropriate step to take? Or shouldn't the U.S. make sure that the individuals that we are going to get out of the country and admit really deserve our help?

I think that can be determined in other ways. I'm not sure it requires a sworn statement. And I don't want to say by the way that we should just say, you know, everybody can come anybody that claims they've got a concern. I think we've got to be sure, because this is a country where there are militants, there are ISIS and Al-Qaeda. So there does have to be a process. But let's get them to a third country. Let's get them out of Afghanistan. And then we can work through the process of the background checks and the verification and those kinds of things. If we say, 'Well, we've got to have all of this paperwork in order before they can leave Afghanistan,' that's a death sentence for a lot of people.

Your statement indicates that you're joined by a bipartisan group of senators, I counted 16 of you altogether. How confident are you that this legislation can pass and pass in time to be helpful?

Well, I'm hopeful on two fronts. One is, as you note, it's a very, very bipartisan group across the ideological spectrum. Many of the people that are sponsors are leading members of the Armed Services Committee like Roger Wicker, and Jeanne Shaheen. Jack Reed, the chair of the committee is one of the sponsors. The other piece, frankly, is that we hope that this, the pendency of this legislation will put pressure on the administration to put more meat on the bones of their response, to accelerate what they're doing.

Is there any concern that in moving quickly to help these individuals, we're sending a message to Afghans that maybe we don't want to send, that we lost all confidence that they're going to be able to maintain security in their country?

Well, I think the people who want to leave are the best judges of that. People generally don't want to leave their country, and so I don't think it necessarily sends that kind of signal. I think it sends a signal that we're going to keep our promises to people who help us out. You know, I don't think people are going to make the decision to leave their country, go to a foreign country, where they don't necessarily know the situation and the customs and all of those kinds of things, unless they really feel the necessity of doing so.