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Power Up: Bipartisan pressure on Biden to expedite SIV process for Afghan allies ramps up

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with Tobi Raji

Good Thursday morning. This is the Power Up newsletter and we're here for the Larry David v. Alan Dershowitz Vineyard drama. Thanks for waking up with us. 

On the Hill

NEW THIS MORNING: Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) have plans to issue a bipartisan letter this week to President Biden calling for the urgent evacuation of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and the implementation of the recently passed language on SIVs, a source with knowledge of the letter told Power Up. 

The letter, which is still being finalized with co-signers, calls on Biden to immediately and fully implement “the recently-passed legislation amending the process and eligibility for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and for the urgent evacuation of SIV applicants whose service to the U.S. mission has put their lives in jeopardy.” 

Some of the changes to the program listed by Ernst and Shaheen were signed into law in the Capitol Security Supplemental Appropriations bill earlier this summer, but have yet to be fully implemented by the administration, include authorizing 8,000 additional visas; changing the employment requirement for eligibility from two years to one; postponing the required medical exam until the SIV applicant and their family have arrived in the U.S.; allowing applicants to appeal visa denials; and prioritizing applications based on the date of the initial application. 

Shaheen and Ernst are among several lawmakers on Capitol Hill leading the effort to pressure Biden to ensure the SIV program has the capacity to bring Afghans who assisted American forces to safety amid the U.S. withdrawal for months now. 

Earlier this week, Ernst issued a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin imploring them “to authorize the U.S. military to guarantee safe passage for Americans to Hamid Karzai International Airport, and commit to evacuating every American from the country before again withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan at or beyond the end of August.” 

  • The big question: “What will be the way forward for the American people stranded in Afghanistan if the President’s arbitrary end date of August 31 passes and the U.S. military has not completed the withdrawal?” Ernst asked of Blinken and Austin in the letter.
  • Asked Wednesday by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos whether some troops might stay beyond the end of the month if necessary to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies, Biden said: “It depends on where they are, and whether we can ramp these numbers up to five [thousand] to 7,000 a day coming out. If that’s the case, they’ll all be out.”

Shaheen and Ernst, along with a group of bipartisan lawmakers, first sent a letter to Biden urging his administration to ensure the SIV program had the capacity to bring Afghans who assisted American forces to safety amid the U.S. withdrawal on May 19, 2021, Anne Gearan, Tyler Pager, Missy Ryan and I report. 

And shortly after Biden announced his withdrawal plan on April 13, a group of bipartisan lawmakers in the House created the Honoring Our Promises Working Group to also pressure the administration to protect Afghan allies and expedite the SIV process. The administration’s first meeting with the working group did not come until May 13, followed by a second meeting at the beginning of June, according to a source familiar with the process.

  • “From our perspective we’d say it took too long but we do think they got there with us,” said a person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe negotiations with the White House.

Change of tune from the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border: “We’re working with the state department right now we’re offering our opportunity to settle here in Iowa,” Ernst told the Associated Press earlier this week at the Iowa State Fair. 

  • “As Afghans flee the country seeking refugee status, Ernst referenced Iowa's history of accepting refugees after the Vietnam War,” the Des Moines Register's Stephen Gruber Miller writes. 
  • “Gov. Robert Ray was significant in accepting refugees in his career and we have always been very welcoming to those that needed to immigrate and those refugees that were running away from disaster in their own country,” she said. “And I do think that we can play a role and I think it’s important that we do that.”

Some have blamed the lull in addressing the plight of vulnerable Afghans who worked for the U.S. even as a deadline for U.S. military withdrawal loomed on White House concern that the influx would invite partisan political backlash amid a rush of migrants at the southern border. 

The administration showed little public urgency to expedite visas for Afghans in the months before and immediately after Biden’s announcement in April that the United States would pull U.S. forces out. White House officials said bureaucratic backlogs and delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic slowed the process but that it ramped up dramatically as summer approached.

  • “At every stage the administration expressed nominal support for the SIV program” while saying that bureaucratic hurdles prevented faster work, said Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that pushed the White House to move more quickly.
  • “They were worried about the optics because they lost control of the southern border,” Meijer added, accusing the administration of “leaving our Afghan friends out to hang in the wind.”
  • “There was a very proactive campaign from outside groups trying to help, and we were stiff-armed. All we asked for was a plan. Whatever they wanted to do, we were standing by to support. But then they didn’t do anything,” right away, James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit group that helps former translators and others navigate the visa process, told us. 
  • “The Biden administration has been looking over its shoulder at the southern border and worries that politically this is an area where demagogues can score points as Trump did when he was running for president,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch. “I think the Biden administration realizes that the asylum issues on the Southern border can easily be conflated with refugee resettlement.”
  • “I've been trying to think of a rationale for why they are not being more aggressive and why they were caught so flatfooted beyond the sheer chaos of the withdrawal and I come back to the idea that Trump won this political argument around the refugee program where there have got to be some people in the White House who are looking at the optics of this and saying, will it be bad for us politically if we take in a lot of Afghans,” said Joel Charny, a humanitarian expert who recently retired after a career running humanitarian and development programs in numerous countries.

The White House has denied that political considerations are to blame for the foot-dragging: 

  • “This is not true. We would never let the prospect of bad-faith criticism from the same people who orchestrated the Muslim ban and decimated America’s refugee pipeline keep us from keeping faith with our Afghan partners,” a senior administration official told us.
  • Reminder: Early in his term, Biden overruled his top foreign policy and national security advisers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in deciding to keep in place the Trump administration’s record-low cap on the number of refugees admitted to the United States. The move was reversed after public outcry, but Biden’s initial decision reflected his concerns about how the crisis at the border affected the broader refugee landscape.

The policies

BIDEN SAYS ‘AMERICA IS BACK,’ ALLIES SAY ‘AMERICA FIRST’: “Visiting Brussels earlier this summer, President Biden was single-minded in his message to American allies,” CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins write. “‘America is back,’ he declared in the lobby of the European Union’s headquarters, repeating a mantra he had uttered at nearly every stop of his first trip abroad, during which leaders welcomed him as a salve to four years of Trump-era angst.”

  • “Two months later, the same group of allies is now wondering what happened to that Biden.”
  • Problem #1: “The humiliating end to the war in Afghanistan has fanned lingering concerns over an ‘America First’ foreign policy that some allies fear did not completely disappear with former president Donald Trump.”
  • Problem #2: “The announcement Wednesday by top U.S. health officials that booster shots against covid-19 will be offered to all Americans beginning next month has spurred renewed criticism about existing vaccine inequities and fears that the world’s poorer nations will remain unprepared for new and potentially deadlier variants of the coronavirus,” per NBC News’ Erik Ortiz.

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But “Biden and his top health advisers dismissed suggestions the booster effort would dent the U.S.’s vaccination efforts abroad.”

  • Biden: “I know there’s some world leaders who say America shouldn’t get a third shot until other countries got there first. I disagree,” Biden said at the White House Wednesday. “We can take care of America and help the world the same time.”
  • Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy: “I do not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world,” Murthy said. “We will also continue to accelerate our efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world. We take that responsibility very seriously.”

The numbers: The Biden administration has donated more than 110 million doses to more than 60 countries worldwide, per a White House fact sheet. And in the coming months, “the country expects to donate 200 million doses globally,” our Post colleague Brittany Shammas reports.

Still, much of the world lags behind the U.S. in vaccine supply. The global distribution of vaccines is grossly unequal. That gulf, between the West and poorer nations in Africa and Latin America, will widen as Americans roll up their sleeves for a third shot.

In the agencies

EPA BANS TOXIC PESTICIDE: “The Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of a pesticide widely applied on food crops but linked to neurological damage in children, reversing one of the Trump administration’s most fraught public health decisions,” our colleague Dino Grandoni reports

  • “The final rule released Wednesday will put a stop to the spraying of chlorpyrifos on fruits and vegetables across the country, to protect the health of both farmworkers dispersing the pesticide and children eating produce treated with it.”
  • Lawmakers applauded the decision. “We commend EPA for prioritizing the health of children and farmworkers with its rulemaking today,” Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), co-chairs of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus, said in a statement.
  • “The decision to ban the use of this pesticide on food is based on sound science, which tells us that exposure to chlorpyrifos can permanently damage the developing brains of children. Oftentimes those most impacted by the use of toxic pesticides come from minority and disadvantaged communities. Most Americans agree: something that compromises our children’s health and harms our workers doesn’t belong in our food or economy.”

The race to erase. “In the scorching first summer of Biden’s presidency, the nation has grappled with deadly heat waves, raging wildfires, deepening drought — and calls from the president’s allies for more urgent action to combat climate change,” our colleagues Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens write.

  • “Beginning from his first day in office, Biden has moved quickly to undo the environmental track record of his predecessor, and to center climate action as a key priority.”
  • “His administration already has begun to transform the nation’s energy and environmental landscape, according to a Washington Post analysis, by overturning dozens of Trump’s policies and enacting a growing list of his own.”

Next steps: In a statement released after the final ruling, Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman urged the EPA to ban dozens of other organophosphate pesticides, citing similar developmental risks. 

  • Meanwhile, the EPA will “continue reviewing whether to allow use of chlorpyrifos for purposes not directly tied to food production, such as cattle ear tags and mosquito control,” per AP News’ John Flesher.

Viral

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