Immigrants from around the state rallied in Olympia Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to oppose budget cuts and bills that they say would hurt the state economy, make the roads less safe and lead to discrimination.
At an event the governor proclaimed “Immigrants’ Day,” about 400 people from 41 legislative districts met at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to oppose cuts to medical interpreters and health care for kids and fight bills that require immigration status checks before issuing driver’s licenses.
“I know about the critical role immigrants play in the economic and social life of our state,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, speaking at the rally, which was organized by an advocacy group called OneAmerica. “The well-being of Washington state is intertwined with the well-being of our new American communities.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget would cut health insurance for 27,000 undocumented children, eliminate state funding for medical interpreters, cut job preparation programs for refugees and do away with state-funded services that help legal immigrants and low-income refugees get citizenship. Also, since December, six bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would verify people’s immigration status before issuing them driver’s licenses.
Supporters of the cuts say the state can’t afford services for people who are here illegally.
“Too much burden is being put on the average taxpayer, and they can’t afford it, to pay for something that shouldn’t really be their responsibility,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.
As for the driver’s license issue, Zarelli said, legislators had a responsibility to make sure immigration laws were upheld.
OneAmerica’s executive director, Pramila Jayapal, said the driver’s license proposals would cost the state money and lead undocumented immigrants to drive without licenses and insurance. She said the bills were driven by anti-immigrant sentiment.
“If this bill passes, it’s about politics and not about good policy,” said Jayapal, referring to Senate Bill 5407, a driver’s license bill that had a hearing Monday in the Senate Transportation Committee.
Washington and New Mexico are the only states that allow an undocumented immigrant to get a driver’s license and use it for identification.
“We’re trying every way to address the legitimate concerns about this, but we can’t continue to be one of two states,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 5407.
Jose Zuniga, a Tacoma construction worker who attended the rally, said he was particularly concerned about the proposed immigration checks before issuing driver’s licenses because undocumented workers are important to the state’s economy.
“Without a driver’s license, who can go to work?” he said. “This is very dangerous for the state, for the economy.”Yana Cosme, an immigrant from Azerbaijan who works at Tacoma Community House, said she was worried about proposed cuts to services that help immigrants get citizenship. One such program, the Department of Social and Health Services’ Naturalization Program, ended in December because of budget cuts.
Cosme said many of the clients she works with rely on the service, and many can’t afford the legal help they need to get citizenship.
“We definitely get calls from people saying, ‘six months ago you helped my mother and there was no fee, but now you’re saying you can’t do that anymore?’ ” she said.
Katie Schmidt: firstname.lastname@example.org