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State Employees Union, Growers League Make Washington-State Case for Immigration Reform

A May Day march in Seattle this year puts the spotlight on immigration reform.

A May Day march in Seattle this year puts the spotlight on immigration reform. (Seattle Globalist)

OLYMPIA, Aug. 15.—Think of it as the kind of issue Congress can’t leave behind, no matter how much it could use a vacation. In the midst of the August recess, as lawmakers are back on their home turf, the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Washington Growers League are making a Washington-state case for a federal immigration-reform bill. They point out that it would add $1.3 billion in tax revenue for the state over the next 10 years – not to mention all of the other reasons that are being argued at the national level.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, officials of the business and labor organizations argued that the measure, passed by the Senate in June, would make it easier for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship – and thus begin generating the tax revenue to bolster Social Security, Medicare and other national programs. Of greatest interest at the Olympian level might be that it also would generate a significant amount of money for state coffers. Citing  estimates from a report produced by the American Center for Progress, they said legal status for Washington’s immigrant population would add $21.3 billion to the gross Washington product over a decade,  add 3,083 jobs and provide a $12.5 billion increase in the earnings of Washington residents.

“I don’t have to tell any of you how important this revenue would be to schools, health care, infrastructure and all the other services that our state and local governments provide,” said Sue Henrickson, vice president of the Federation, the state’s largest public-employee union. More money for state services, of course, translates to union jobs.

Sue Henricksen, vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Sue Henricksen, vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

And so a national argument, the center of a storm in Congress, touches down in Washington state, ever so briefly, during the five-week break in business in the other Washington. U.S. House members, particularly on the Republican side, are being lobbied hard by immigration-reform advocates, labor and other interests. So far one Republican member of the Washington delegation, Dave Reichert, has declared his support for the measure. Senate Bill 744 would ease hurdles for immigrants currently settled in the United States without legal status to make application while in this country.

The measure passed the U.S. Senate June 27 by a vote of 68-32, but it is mired in the House for reasons that ought to sound mighty familiar to any follower of the Washington Legislature. It appears a majority of votes are available to pass the bill – perhaps 200 Democrats and at least 23 Republicans, according to a tally maintained by America’s Voice, an immigration-reform organization. It takes 218 votes to pass a bill. But in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, GOP leaders say they won’t consider the bill unless a majority of their members assent.

Growers League Backs Bill

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Perhaps most interesting, politics-wise, is that the Washington Growers League, an influential Eastern Washington agribusiness association, is marching shoulder-to-shoulder with the Federation on immigration. One might remember the organization’s battles two decades ago with the United Farm Workers over government-mandated health benefits for farmworkers. But Gempler said immigration reform is a common cause. “The agricultural industry is reliant on immigrant labor – I don’t think that is any big secret. And we are very eager to have a legal and stable workforce and to see that people that have been working in our industry enjoy the full rights of citizenship.

“The economic burden to our state and country is really magnified in the agricultural industry. We have one of the largest labor-intensive agricultural industries in our country here in Washington state. Tree fruit and vegetables, berries and flowers and other specialty crops are really a very thriving and large part of our economy. So the extent to which immigration reform helps stabilize our industry will pay tremendous benefits to our state as a whole.

Legal status will allow those who have settled in Washington state to fully participate in their communities and society – and get them paying their full share of the tax burden. Unsuccessful reform proposals of the last 10 years have all required employers to use E-Verify, a voluntary system that allows employers to check immigration status that employees provide on I-9 forms. “Right now anybody who wants to sneak into the United State and has a couple hundred bucks can buy documents and get a job, and that lack of control isn’t helpful to anybody,” Gempler said. “I think people are underestimating the impact that mandatory use of e-Verify at the time of hire will have on the economic magnet that exists in the United States for people in other countries. It will be a more controlled situation, and a more fair situation, one in which we welcome people to our country in a more controlled manner that really reflects economic and immigration realities. So no, it shouldn’t stop – it should be done better.”

Social Security Impact

Advocates said legal status would bolster Social Security and Medicare programs, now supported by an aging population of U.S.-born citizens. They noted that the immigrant population is typically younger, meaning an influx of taxpayers who might buttress the system. Social Security actuaries have estimated the Senate measure would extend the solvency of the Social Security program by two years, to 2035, and that legalized immigrants would add $1.2 trillion over the next 36 years. “That is ‘trillion’ with a ‘T,’” said Gwen Grant, president of the Seattle-area chapter of the Retired Public Employees Council of Washington. The contributions would be sufficient to support 2.4 million American retirees over the next 36 years.

Amy Biviano of the Main Street Alliance, a progressive small-business lobbying organization, pointed to the money that might be generated for state services, thorough sales, business and occupations and sales taxes. “That would benefit our state in terms of our education, our police power, all the vital services that our citizens need, and when we bring more people into our tax system, we ease the burden on small business owners.”

Efforts here are being trained on the state’s four Republican members of Congress – local rallies, letter-writing and email efforts, statements at town hall meetings and so on. Reichert, of East King County, is the only member to declare support for the Senate bill. In the Tri-Cities, Congressman Richard “Doc” Hastings has said he is optimistic that perhaps a less comprehensive bill might pass the House; in the Spokane area, Cathy McMorris Rodgers has expressed “openness to the conversation,” and in Vancouver, Jaime Herrera Beutler has laid out the central misgiving about the reform effort. Her press secretary, Casey Bowman, last month told her hometown newspaper, The Columbian, that 3rd District residents “want our laws to matter.” House members are working on their own plan, but since GOP leaders have made it clear the Senate bill is dead on arrival, he said the congresswoman has placed her focus there, “rather than analyze hundreds of pages of legislation that will never come before her for a vote.”