Commentary: Hatch should lead the way to providing visas for those who fought for America

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Chamber will award Senator Orrin G. Hatch as the 39th Giant in Our City, in honor of his exceptional and distinguished service and extraordinary professional achievement, Saturday, June 9, 2018 at Grand America Hotel.

I refuse to believe bipartisanship died with Sen. John McCain.

On Sept. 5, I paused in front of his office in Russell Senate Office Building to pay my silent respects. It wasn’t the primary mission for my first visit to Capitol Hill. As an advocate with Lutheran Social Services (LSS) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), I had just come from the office of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., where I thanked his staff for his bipartisan co-sponsorship of the Afghan Allies Protection Amendments Act of 2018 (S.2793). The moment in front of McCain’s office fortified me though.

Nearly a week after McCain’s body in state at the Capitol Rotunda, the flowers and tributes were gone from his office door. I took a photo of the American and Arizona flags in the hall next to his nameplate. As a former Utahan who has resided in Virginia suburbs outside Washington D.C. for nearly two decades, I wondered if another Westerner, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, might take up the mantle of bipartisanship before he leaves office.

Among the complicated immigration issues, awarding visas to allies who help with our counterterrorism efforts abroad is one of the least divisive. Since its inception in 2009, the Afghan Special Immigration Visa (SIV) Program provides visas to Afghan nationals who assist the U.S. as translators, embassy clerks, engineers, security guards, logisticians, cultural advisors and soldiers. They have demonstrated their loyalty to the United States even before setting foot on American soil. Once SIV holders arrive in the U.S., organizations like LIRS and LSS help resettle these families. As of December 2017, the State Department reports it has issued 42,341 SIVs to Afghanistan nationals. Yet, the demand for these visas has outpaced the supply.

McCain understood the need for bipartisanship in this area and the moral imperative underlying it. In advocating for an expansion of the Afghan SIV program in 2017, McCain didn’t mince words, “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.”

During McCain’s medical absence from the Senate, some of his colleagues — Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Roger F. Wicker, R-Miss.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — crafted the Afghan Allies Protection Amendments Act of 2018 (S 2793). This bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it remains in limbo. Members of that committee, including Hatch, have attended to other business.

I believe Hatch can revive his bipartisan ways with the Afghan Allies Protection Amendments Act of 2018. I am old enough to remember Hatch’s friendship with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. While attending St. Joseph High School in Ogden during the late 1980s, I served on Hatch’s Youth Advisory Committee alongside students from the area public school, Ogden High. Beyond his former exploits with bipartisanship, Hatch has repeatedly demonstrated his concern for the military. Part of his constituency includes men and women who work for Hill Air Force Base. They credit Hatch for bringing the F-35 fighter jet there.

Hatch has the leadership and standing in the Senate to do the right thing and honor our commitment. I am hopeful he will turn his attention to the Afghan Allies Protection Amendment Act of 2018, urge appropriations offices to authorize 4,000 visas in coming spending bills and encourage the State Department to process SIV applications expeditiously. As one of the few remaining statesmen in our country, he is without a doubt the person for the job.

Wendy Besel Hahn, Reston, Va., is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Advocacy Office in Washington, D.C.