Budget cuts force state deeper into immigration issue

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’s 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.

“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’s licenses 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 2011-2013 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 may 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 may no longer cover health care for children who are not legally in the country. It then asks parents to send any immigration-related paper work by the beginning of February that may 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 that 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.

Gregoire’s proposals and the licenses bills have sent immigrant advocates to scramble to Olympia. But in a down economy, pitching for programs that serve non-Americans can be a tough sell.

“I think that our state and nationally there’s an increasing resentment against immigrants, legally or not legally, to be honest with you, and I think it’s growing,” said Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle. “If we don’t get immigration reform at the federal level, it’s going to get worse.”

Still, there have been some small victories so far for immigrant advocates. Both the state food program and the children’s health programs were spared from cuts in the House of Representative’s version of the supplemental budget for this year.

“Our belief is that our values as Washingtonians really haven’t changed with the economy,” Gould said. “The economy and revenue shortfall is what’s created the potential loss of these programs.”

Key lawmakers say that they won’t allow cuts to health care for children to pass, as well.

“In general, what I have heard from my Senate Democrat colleagues is that they believe that children need to be held harmless from decisions they didn’t make,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

But for Zarelli and others, the question they want asked about these programs for immigrants is if the state can afford them. Zarelli, the GOP’s budget expert, said that the state spends about $270 million every two years on health care, welfare, childcare for farmworkers and illegal immigrant prisoner.

Republicans are pushing for the state to re-enroll users of welfare programs to weed out people who don’t qualify — that includes illegal immigrants and others.

Across the country, state lawmakers are venturing further into immigration law. In 2010, 208 laws regarding immigration were passed in 46 legislatures around the country, a record number, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report.

State lawmakers are both responding to budget deficits and lack of action from Congress on overhauling the country’s immigration law. Nine states this year are considering bills similar to Arizona’s law that imposed the strictest immigration rules in the country.

Washington hasn’t seen that same kind of support for strict immigration rules. But several bills that would impose asking for proof of legal residency or citizenship when obtaining a driver’s license have also been introduced by Democrats and Republicans. Similar measures have been introduced in the past and failed. Washington remains one of three states in the country where proof of legal residency is no required.

“Because a driver’s license is considered legal identity, it opens up a lot of doors for folks, from being able to obtain government benefits, register to vote, and getting other more positive types of identification, such as a passport. Our state has gained a reputation as the place to come to get a driver’s license,” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, the sponsor of one of the driver’s licenses bills, in a statement.

Opponents of such bills say that precluding illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses may lead to people unqualified to drive to be on the roads and lack of insurance among drivers.

This past year, a Democrat-controlled Congress declined to take up an overhaul of immigration law. In his State of the Union, President Barack Obama urged a now split Congress to do so this year. But attempts at changing immigration law have failed for years now.

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