By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators introduced legislation on Wednesday that would provide an additional 2,500 visas for Afghans who have assisted U.S. forces by working as interpreters or in other support functions, often risking their lives.
The U.S. State Department said last week it would soon run out of visas for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, designed to help bring to the United States those who have worked for the government during the decade and a half that U.S. forces have been engaged in the country.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul has stopped scheduling interviews for applicants seeking a visa through the program.
The bill was introduced by Republican Senators John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Thom Tillis, and Democrats Jack Reed, the committee's top Democrat, and Jeanne Shaheen. Tillis and Shaheen are also members of the panel.
The four senators led efforts in the Senate to extend the Afghan SIV program last year.
"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," McCain said in a statement.
The National Defense Authorization Act passed late last year added 1,500 visas to the program, while tightening requirements for eligibility.
Shaheen's office said more than 10,000 applicants are still in the process of obtaining visas.
The Afghan visa announcement came as U.S. officials prepared to implement President Donald Trump's executive order, effective this week, that temporarily bans the admission of refugees and some travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.
Afghanistan is not one of the six but some members of Congress have resisted expanding the SIV program out of concern that militants could use it to enter the United States. Supporters of the program dismiss the concerns, noting that applicants are subjected to intense screening.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)