The Immigrant Vote

Proposed initiatives would crack down on illegals at the polls and on welfare rolls.

As the national debate on immigration heats up in Congress, groups on different sides locally are gearing up for a fight over state initiatives that are likely to be on the ballot this November. Two groups intend to file initiatives modeled on pieces of Arizona's Proposition 200, approved by voters in 2004, which tightened restrictions on the ability of noncitizens to vote and receive public benefits. Meanwhile, a coalition of about 60 immigrant-rights and civil-liberties organizations has formed to mobilize a response.

Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, has spun off a group called Grassroots Washington that is "in the process of filing an initiative," says Jonathan Bechtle, director of the foundation's voter integrity project. Bechtle says "the focus is not on immigration." Instead, he says, the purpose is "cleaning up" voter registration rolls generally, the necessity of which became apparent during last year's pitched battle over who won the 2004 gubernatorial race.

However, Bechtle acknowledges that the cleanup would be aimed at weeding noncitizens from the rolls, as well as felons, duplicate names, and the deceased. "It's something Arizona just put in place," he says, referring to Proposition 200. "Some of the ideas came from that." He also says some of the initiative's language will be taken from a bill which state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, introduced during the current session of the Legislature. The bill would require that voter applicants submit proof of citizenship through documents such as a birth certificate or passport, but it has found no traction.

With the voting of immigrants covered, another group, called Protect Washington Now, has decided to focus on state benefits. Protect Washington Now is affiliated with Protect America Now, an Arizona-based national group spawned by the effort to pass Proposition 200. The local offshoot is headed by Bob Baker, a Mercer Island resident who is an Alaska Airlines pilot and who, before that, spent two decades flying Navy fighters.

Baker says he intends to file an initiative in the next two weeks using language from Proposition 200, which requires state officials to verify the immigration status of applicants for "state and local public benefits that are not federally mandated." Such broad language created confusion as to what benefits were at stake until the Arizona state attorney general's office ruled that it affected a limited number of welfare programs. In spite of that confusion, Baker says, he has no plans to make the initiative more specific. "Arizona was so successful," he says.

Baker, who ran unsuccessfully for Mercer Island City Council last year, says he is launching this effort for reasons of national security. "I've really been shocked 9/11 hasn't brought more attention to closing our borders," he says. "They're here. There are potential terrorists here." He maintains that cutting off access to welfare will make it less advantageous for illegal immigrants to come.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Washington immigrants-rights group Hate Free Zone, asserts that such rationale blurs the distinction between immigrants and terrorists, as if they were one and the same. And George Cheung, a public relations consultant who is a paid organizer for the coalition that is preparing to fight the initiatives, called From Hate to Hope, expects a "chilling effect on immigrants participating in civil society." Even immigrants and minorities who are citizens might not have easy access to documents proving their citizenship, he says. Indeed, Arizona election officials told the Los Angeles Times last year that in the wake of Proposition 200, they have had to turn away legitimate prospective voters because of problems like lost documentation.

Still, Jayapal and Cheung's objections don't really tackle head-on the inevitable question raised by such initiatives: Aside from unintended consequences for some U.S. citizens, is there anything wrong with preventing illegal immigrants from voting or receiving welfare? It's a thorny question for immigrant advocates, who generally don't even approve of the term "illegal immigrants," preferring to talk simply about immigrants, or undocumented immigrants.

Expect more debate on the issue. Washington might not seem the most likely place for such initiatives to pass. A recent citizens' effort to man the border by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, another Arizona export, proved to be a joke, with hardly anybody showing up to watch a very quiet border with Canada. And a Soap Lake resident, Martin Ringhofer, filed a similar initiative last year, leaving it to languish at the Secretary of State's office without signatures. All the attention the issue is getting nationally is bound to have a local effect, however. "We're taking it very seriously," says Jayapal.

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