OLYMPIA - The state's grim financial shape is pushing lawmakers further into the immigration debate, forcing a state historically friendly to immigrants to consider cuts that will affect large segments of legal and illegal immigrants.
The proposed cuts are on top of introduced bills that call for stricter enforcement of immigration law, specifically bills that would force the state to ask for proof of legal residency when obtaining a driver license.
“My whole point is that we ignore, ignore, ignore – now we have to make real decisions: Does the public think it’s a priority to provide benefits for people who are undocumented?” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the Senate GOP’s budget chief. “I believe it’s time for prioritizing what we can afford to do. We gotta have that debate.”
From blueberry fields in Skagit County to the high-tech offices at Microsoft, immigrant labor, both legal and illegal, is a fuel in many of the state’s industries. And no matter their legal status, immigrants contribute to the state’s main source of revenue – the sales tax – whenever they buy something.
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“In one year, Washington state has gone from a leader on immigration to a hostile environment for immigrants and their families,” said an e-mail from OneAmerica, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, to supporters, urging them to testify against the driver license bills.
During this legislative session, lawmakers have been tasked with two crucial budgetary jobs: They need to close a cash deficit of more than half a billion dollars in the supplemental budget for this fiscal year that ends in June, and they need to write a budget that closes a projected $4.6 billion deficit in the 2011-13 budget.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget, which sets the pace for the session, cuts more than half a dozen programs that directly aid immigrants – from subsidized naturalization classes to transferring illegal immigrant inmates in state prisons to federal custody.
The two biggest proposals for the next two-year budget, though, are stripping medical coverage to an estimated 27,000 children whose legal status is unclear under the Children’s Health Program for savings of $59 million, and eliminating the State Food Assistance Program, which provides food stamps for legal immigrants, for a savings of $45 million.
“In the last decade or two, Washington has wisely recognized that immigrants are tax-paying, working neighbors to all of us,” said Jon Gould, executive director of the Children’s Alliance, an advocacy group. “I’m very worried right now that we are at risk of losing those important public structures that allow our immigrant neighbors to be contributing members of the state.”
It’s the third year in a row that a section of the Children’s Health Program has been proposed for cuts, but it’s the first time that children who might be illegally in the country have been singled out, Gould said.
The Department of Social and Health Services has sent thousands of letters to parents of children in the health program, warning them that the state might no longer cover health care for children who are not legally in the country. It then asks parents to send any immigration-related papers by the beginning of February that could help their case.
The state food program was created by a bipartisan Legislature in 1997 after Congress, under welfare reform, imposed a five-year bar on legal immigrants from obtaining food stamps. In Washington, the state stepped in and subsidized the program.
Scott Whiteaker, a spokesman for Gregoire, said the governor looked at state programs that are solely funded by the state in proposing her cuts and is imploring nonprofit groups and private businesses to step in and help with whatever they can.
“Times that we’re in right now really demand cuts that nobody necessarily wants to do,” he said.