Activists push Legislature to grant more rights for immigrants

SEATTLE (AP) - Emboldened by the critical role minorities played in the November elections, immigrant rights advocates in Olympia want to play offense this year.

Activists are pushing lawmakers to provide state college financial aid for young immigrants who've won temporary resident status, and they're seeking to overhaul local elections to ensure better representation for minorities.

However, the power play by Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom that gave Republicans a ruling majority in the Senate may stifle those efforts.

Already, Republican Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver has filed a bill that would bring back the often-debated issue of requiring proof of legal U.S. residency when obtaining a driver's license.

Also, Benton and Democrat Sen. Tim Sheldon, who defected with Tom, are sponsoring a measure that would bar all illegal immigrants from in-state tuition and financial aid for college.

It's not new that Republicans have tried to pass the proof of U.S. residency rule, which Benton has included in a bill about a voter database. In 2011, Senate Republicans attempted to bring a vote through a procedural move while they were still in the minority - at least one former senior Democratic senator also backed them. Proponents of such measures say failing to ask for proof of U.S. residency invites identity fraud and could end up putting noncitizens in the state's voter rolls.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said he hadn't yet seen the driver's license bill, but said there was a problem with the way people obtain driver's licenses here.

"Unfortunately, we couldn't get a vote on it in the past," he said. "We'll probably be looking at it again this year. We're in a minority of states that has a driver's license system like this."

Washington and New Mexico had been the only states without a proof of U.S. residency requirement until last month when Illinois changed its law in a move that will allow immigrants who can't prove their status to get a license. Utah has a two-tier license model that allows illegal immigrants to drive, but they can't use the permit as identification.

It remains to be seen whether either of Benton's measures will get a hearing in committee or if they will advance in their current form through the Senate.

"We're keeping an open mind," said Toby Guevin of OneAmerica, an immigrant rights advocacy group, of what he expects of the Senate this year.

Benton did not respond to interview requests, neither did Republican leadership. Democrats in the Senate minority also did not return interview requests, nor did Democratic Gov. Inslee's office.

There were no sweeping exit polls conducted in Washington, but analyst Matt Barreto of polling outfit Latino Decisions estimated that Latinos in the state broke similarly for Inslee as they did for President Barack Obama, supporting each candidate by about at 3 to 1 margin.

Asian-American voters, which at 7 percent of the voting pool have a bigger share than Latinos in Washington, are also thought to have supported Inslee similarly in the state, Barreto said.

Nationally, Obama gained more than 70 percent of the votes among Latinos and Asians. Just a few years ago, those two voting blocs were up for grabs. President George W. Bush took 40 percent of Latino votes, compared to Romney's 23 percent. The dreary results from November prompted national Republican leaders to rethink their stance on immigration, and have helped fuel support for immigration reform, including a bipartisan plan in the U.S. Senate.

So far this legislative session, activists have worked to leverage that influence by pushing for college financial aid for young immigrants under the Obama Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants temporary resident status to young people brought to this country by their parents. These immigrants already qualify for in-state tuition.

"You have a number of students who live here and are able to access work permits," Guevin said. "We have a state that values hard work, and rewards hard work with opportunity."

The last time the issue was considered was in 2009. Back then, state analysts assumed the change in law would add about 1,000 students statewide and cost about $7 million in a two-year budget cycle. The analysts, however, stressed that it was a rough estimate because it's not known how many of these students live in Washington and how many would enroll in college.

U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services did not have data on how many people have applied for the temporary status program in Washington state.

Advocates are also pushing to overhaul local elections.

Under the so-called Washington Voting Rights Act, minority groups are given a legal tool to challenge local elections that they think underrepresent them.

A House panel hearing on the bill brought a packed house this week. Proponents said Latinos in central and eastern Washington are underrepresented in cities where they make up a large section of the population. The bill allows minority groups to present complaints to a municipality, and if a solution is not presented, a lawsuit can be filed. City and school lobbyists said the bill is too vague and will invite lawsuits that are expensive.

The measure received backing from Democrats last year but did not receive a floor vote. It's unclear how much support the idea has in the Senate.

Longtime activist Craig Keller of Respect Washington, which calls for strict immigration rules, doesn't expect much movement on immigration issues this year in Olympia. He's pleased that a measure barring municipalities from using E-Verify, a federal program that checks a worker's eligibility, is not back this year.


Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report from Olympia, Wash.