Officials, country remain divided as immigration boycott occurs today
Seattle Times chief political reporter
Local strike, march and rally
Immigrants and their allies are being asked to take the day off from work and school today.
A silent march will begin at St. Mary's Church, 611 20th Ave. S. in the Central Area, at 3:30 p.m. and end at the Federal Building, 915 Second Ave.
A rally is planned in front of the Federal Building. Demonstrators are being asked to dress in black.
The last official word from Congress on immigration came last year when the House passed a bill that would make felons out of 12 million illegal immigrants, anyone who tries to help them and the people who hire them.
Without further, less punitive, congressional action, migrant farmworkers could be reluctant to cross the Mexican border this harvest season out of fear that the U.S. views them as serious criminals.
"That is clearly the message that has gotten far and wide," said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, who voted against the House bill.
He said growers and packers worry the House vote could lead to a shortage of workers in orchards, vineyards and asparagus fields throughout his Central Washington district.
"Then there'll be consequences," he said, "and I'm very, very worried about that."
The immediate impact would be economic. But this is an election year, and political fallout is likely, too, if the Republican-controlled Congress doesn't pass a comprehensive immigration bill.
"I think it's important that Congress be seen as solving problems," said freshman U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Spokane.
Immigration will be a focus today in Seattle and elsewhere as Latinos hold a nationwide boycott of schools and businesses as part of their call for fair reform of immigration laws.
Agriculture is the largest employer in the state. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said on the Senate floor recently that the 700,000 undocumented workers in Washington are the highest per capita concentration of any state.
The immigration debate affects other interests as well. Microsoft and other high-tech companies want to recruit more highly trained workers from overseas. Canneries and fish-processing plants rely on low-wage migrant labor. And many people are concerned about security along the Canadian border.
The House bill, passed in December, was touted as a "border-security" measure that would crack down on illegal immigrants and their employers and build 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. It did not include other immigration provisions, such as a guest-worker program and new paths to citizenship, now being discussed in the Senate.
Among Washington state's congressional delegation, McMorris, fellow Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, voted for the House bill.
Reichert could not be reached for comment last week.
But McMorris and Larsen — whose districts encompass the U.S.-Canadian border in the state — both say they don't want to make illegal immigration a felony, punishable by at least a year in jail. Currently, illegal immigrants face civil penalties and deportation.
They voted for the House bill, they said, because of the pressing need to do something about the illegal-immigration problem. They also said they won't support the harsher penalties in any future legislation and are confident the felony provision won't be part of any bill that emerges from the Senate.
Republican leaders in both the House and Senate also have said they want the felony provision dropped. And President Bush is pushing Congress to consider a guest-worker program and a form of permanent legal residency for some immigrants.
But some wonder whether an agreement can be reached.
"I know there's a lot of pressure to do something about immigration, especially in an election year," Murray said in the Senate on March 30.
"I approach this debate with a clear understanding of what's at stake, and frankly with some skepticism that Congress can achieve this delicate balance in a heated, political environment."
U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, said the immigration debate plays out in the press as largely an issue of absolutes: Either someone is for cracking down on illegal immigrants or not.
But he said discussions with constituents and a recent district survey show "there are a fair number of undecided folks."
"What I'm hearing from constituents is 'you've got to stop illegal immigration,' " Baird said. But when he asks how they would do that, "then the nuances start."
Hastings is a strong supporter of a guest-worker program. But in a December speech before the Washington State Horticultural Association, he said there is little support for the plan in Congress.
Even members from some traditional agriculture states don't back a guest-worker program because crops in their home states are heavily mechanized and don't rely on migrant labor.
"Very, very few congressmen represent areas that are as dependent upon guest workers as Central Washington is," Hastings told the group of growers. "Most in Congress represent areas that are not concerned about having a guest-worker program at all. But you can bet they are very concerned about border security and enforcement."
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, said any temporary visas should allow workers to move from one employer to another "so they are not just indentured servants" beholden to one employer.
And he said there needs to be an easier process for those workers to become citizens "so they're not just brought over here for their labor and then sent back."
McMorris said she did not know until recently how difficult it is for undocumented workers to become citizens.
"I honestly did not realize to what degree it is impossible to work through the process because this system is broken," she said.
But McMorris and other members of Washington's congressional delegation support requirements for people hoping to become legal residents, including learning English and holding a job.
The process needs to be "a rigorous path to earned citizenship, not amnesty or a rubber stamp," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island.
There are disagreements, even among members of the same party. Smith said he'd support building a fence along parts of the southern U.S. border to keep out illegal immigrants. That, he said, would be better than trying to track down, imprison and deport those who make it into the country.
"It makes a hell of a lot more sense to spend $8 billion on a fence than it does to make all law enforcement in America into immigration officers," he said.
"Building a wall at the southwest border is not solving the problem," he said. "It is a ridiculous provision."
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is the most critical of Congress' effort to change immigration law. He sees it mostly as a Republican political ploy.
"Will it be good legislation? Not the point," he said.
"The point is simply to have something that passes they can point to that expresses their basic nativist hatred for immigrants. ... This whole thing is a charade of monumental proportions simply designed to get them through the election,"
Democrats hope the House immigration vote will hurt the GOP's standing with immigrant voters and Hispanics, who in recent elections have voted more heavily Republican.
Joe Garcia, executive vice president of the New Democrat Network, a political group based in Washington, D.C., said the House bill was one of the worst pieces of legislation in history and will turn Hispanics away from the Republican Party.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said there is good bipartisan work being done in the Senate on immigration. The president, too, has taken a moderate approach, she said.
That won't stop her Republican challenger from tagging her with a failure if the Republican-led Congress doesn't pass a meaningful bill.
Republican senatorial candidate Mike McGavick said the House bill was a mistake. But if Congress deadlocks, "I think every incumbent will be held accountable, no matter what party they are," he said.
He supports a fence along the southern border, a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants already in the country.
Darcy Burner, the Democrat running against Reichert in the 8th Congressional District, said Reichert was wrong to vote in December for the House bill, which she called "pretty extreme."
Border security needs to be increased, she said, and new sanctions are needed on employers who attract and hire illegal immigrants.
Burner also supports a process to allow illegal workers to become citizens if they pay a fine, do not commit crimes, and are learning English and paying taxes.
Recent demonstrations that brought thousands of immigrants into the streets around the country, including Seattle, may have some lawmakers rethinking their positions on the issue.
Garcia said the demonstrations showed that Hispanics who are not usually politically active "are being pressured to get involved" because of the anti-immigrant fervor.
Said Inslee: "I think that perhaps has been a bit of an eye-opener to people."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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