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U.S. lawmakers aim to extend Afghan interpreter visa program

By Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill to allow more time for the thousands of Afghans who worked for the American military and government as interpreters and in other high-risk jobs to immigrate to the United States.

The move by members of the Senate and the House of Representatives is intended to speed access to the country for people who worked for the U.S. military since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, some of whom now face death threats for that work.

"We have an obligation to people who put their lives on the line," said Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and a co-sponsor of the Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act.

The bill would expand the Special Immigrant Visa program, which offers visas to Afghans who helped the U.S. government's war effort, or who worked or U.S. news organizations or aid programs, for at least one year.

The program, currently due to stop accepting applications in the fall, would be extended through the end of 2015.

The bill would also offer visas to more family members of foreign workers who were threatened after they aided the United States.

Blumenauer said the current slow-paced visa system results from the need to coordinate efforts of the Homeland Security Department, the FBI, the State Department and other agencies looking to prevent potential militants from entering the United States.

The protection the U.S. government offers the former workers

could benefit the United States in future conflicts that require hiring foreigners, Blumenauer said.

"They need to know they can rely on us if the situation demands," he said.

Two U.S. Army veterans of the Afghanistan conflict and their interpreters joined lawmakers backing the bill at a Capitol news conference.

Army Captain Matt Zeller said he escaped death in Afghanistan six years ago when an interpreter, Janis Shinwari, shot and killed two Taliban fighters moments before they would have killed Zeller.

"Janis was on the Taliban kill list for five years," Zeller said.

A former interpreter who was identified only as Mohammad to protect his family said his father was killed and his younger brother kidnapped by the Taliban in retribution for his work with the U.S. military.

He has since received a visa, and moved to Berkeley, California, in January, where he found a job with a local company. "Thank you for saving my life," he said.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Mohammad Zargham)

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