Washington (CNN) - Nearly lost in the chaotic last few days, the dueling House and Senate gave fast-track approval to at least one immigration bill - a measure extending 1,000 more special visas to Afghan citizens who have been working for the United States.
Under current law, 3,000 so-called Special Immigrant Visas were available this year to Afghanistan citizens who have worked as U.S. interpreters or in other key roles. Anyone who qualifies technically has until the end of September to apply, but demand has swelled and all 3,000 spots have already been given out or designated.
That has left scores of Afghans associated with the United States at risk for retaliation but with no access to protection in America.
“(These are) people whose lives are in the balance, they are literally being watched by the Taliban,” said Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which also works on issues involving Afghanistan. “Without a supply of visas to work with, (the State Department) would not be able to provide relief to people who have earned it and need it desperately.”
The House passed the visa expansion Wednesday but the measure was nearly smothered at the last-minute in the Senate. Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions put a hold on the measure, according to Reisner and to a Senate Democratic leadership aide. Sessions' office did not respond to CNN’s questions, but Friday the hold was removed and the Senate passed the bill unanimously.
“Amidst all the partisanship and rancor in the waning days of Congress, a life-saving bill was passed with bipartisan support,” cheered Becca Heller, who heads the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
Allowing the additional Afghan workers into the United States would cost an estimated $66 million, largely because of refugee benefits triggered by their status. The measure pays for that by adding an additional $1 to the processing fee for some visas and border-crossing identification cards.
The bill is the latest in a series of visa extensions for both Iraqi and Afghan workers who have put themselves and their families in danger by working for the United States in sometimes hostile territory. Advocates estimate that they will likely need another round of visas for the Afghan interpreters next year.