Washington:  Secretary of State John Kerry has urged lawmakers to increase the number of special visas for Afghans who worked with the US government to avoid “stranding hundreds” as America withdraws.

Congress set up a special immigrant visa program in 2009 to “help Afghans whose work for the US government put them in danger of retaliation,” Kerry wrote yesterday in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

It was modelled after a similar one for Iraqis and “was designed to identify people who faced genuine threats and to speed their entry to this country.”

But it got bogged down in “unconscionably long processing times for applicants, including on background checks conducted by other US agencies,” Kerry wrote.

“Some deserving people were simply falling through the cracks,” he said, adding that was “unacceptable.”

Extra resources and staff were mobilised at the US Embassy in Kabul and since October 1, nearly 5,000 Afghans, mainly interpreters and their family members, have received visas allowing them to emigrate to the United States.

The numbers compare with 1,600 visas granted in the 12 previous months. In March and April alone, 1,000 visas were approved.

But the system is now facing another problem as it will soon reach the limit of 3,000 set for the fiscal year that ends on September 30.

“This leaves us in danger of stranding hundreds of deserving Afghans until a new batch of visas is approved for fiscal year 2015,” Kerry wrote.

“It’s an outcome that will be dangerous for applicants — and damaging to our national credibility the next time we have to rely on local knowledge.”

He called on Congress to pass new legislation this summer allowing more visas this year and next to ensure the United States is “keeping our word.”

“This is not a partisan issue. Nor is it a gift to Afghans. Rather, this effort fulfils the commitment to those who risked their lives working alongside Americans in Afghanistan,” Kerry wrote.

“We don’t want to lose the hard-won momentum or put lives at risk.”

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