Immigration Nation

State initiative falls short, but E-Verify continues in Whatcom County

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Only $20,000 was raised for the campaign, hardly enough to pay gatherers the average $1 to $2 to gather a signature.

“Every single year since 2004 there has been an anti-immigrant initiative filed in the state of Washington. Every single year,” observed Rosalinda Guillen, a Latina activist who advocates on behalf of Washington’s farmworkers and immigrants. “So far they have failed miserably to get anywhere near the signatures needed. But it is the same group of people each year.”

After spending seven years with the United Farm Workers union, Guillen started her own nonprofit, Bellingham-based Community to Community Development, to work on social justice issues. All major projects and programs in her organization are led by women. Guillen has been active in protesting efforts by the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps, a self-appointed patrol group that watches for illegal crossings at the Canadian border.

“The Minuteman Project is a national group that has established policy groups in each state,” Guillen explained. “This is a group that is not looking at building community, that is not looking at commonsense solutions for local economies, it’s looking at scapegoating one particular group of folks and then using the cover of policy.”

The Whatcom chapter of the Minuteman CDC, headquartered at a private range in Whatcom County north of Ferndale, are part of the Arizona-based organization whose volunteers focus on border issues. In May, Minuteman organizers and other supporters urged Whatcom County Council to begin using the E-Verify system for county employees and businesses that contract with the county. The administration agreed to develop a pilot program—in effect, agreeing to abide by I-1056 before the measure was even certified for the ballot.

E-Verify compares an employee documents with data from U.S. government records. If the information matches, that employee may be hired to work in the United States. If there’s a mismatch, E-Verify warns the employer. If the mismatch cannot be resolved, the employer must terminate the worker.

“The county is not hiring anyone right now, so it’s hard to say just how effective E-Verify will be,” Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen said. The county is developing a one-year pilot project to test the system. “I don’t anticipate the pilot program will be expanded,” Kremen said.

Critics of E-Verify say the system is personally invasive and imperfect—a black mark can permanently stain a person’s opportunity for future employment. Meanwhile, E-Verify doesn’t do anything more than can be achieved through the I-9 process already required by the Immigration and Control Reform Act of 1986, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce complained in a recent lawsuit. The national Chamber believes E-Verify requirements unduly burden private companies who contract with local governments.

Locally, the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry has complained the system appears cumbersome for private companies that work with the government.

“This is something that’s being forced upon (the county) and there’s no evidence to back up the accusations that are being made” about numbers of undocumented workers employed by the county or its contractors, Chamber of Commerce President Ken Oplinger told The Bellingham Herald. “That’s sort of a waste of time.”

Kremen said the administration had not had enough experience with E-Verify to determine its limitations or effectiveness. He stressed that he does not support programs that target people based upon their ethnicity.

His assurance does not satisfy Rosa-linda Guillen.

“As a Latina in this community, I believe the county’s use of E-Verify is a race-based decision,” she said. “Obviously, we’re pretty disappointed with Pete that he would give credibility to the Minutemen by even considering E-Verify,” agreed Caroline Correa, who works with Guillen on immigrant labor issues. “No council member has voted on this. The administration just agreed to it after the Minutemen pressured Pete for more than a year. They’ve created fear in this community that is not warranted by evidence.”

“My question to our elected leaders is, ‘why are you listening to folks that come from a philosophy that has nothing to do with the local economy, nothing to do with things actually wrong in Whatcom County?’” Guillen added. “We asked Pete Kremen, ‘Is there a problem with immigration in Whatcom County?’”

Supporters of a crackdown on migrant labor “aren’t taking into account the impacts on local economy,” Guillen said. “What is the impact to the agricultural economies in Whatcom and Skagit counties?

“That’s a very basic, commonsense benchmark to begin to look at. But our leaders are not looking at the issue of immigration reform from the bottom up, on an economic basis. They’re looking at the national economy from a corporate view, which is huge—corporations need guest workers of all different types coming in. Many of those guest workers stay. But there is a big disconnect between that and what happens in Whatcom County.”

With unemployment at historic highs nationally, Whatcom County is only the latest place in the country to succumb to fears someone may have a job who is not legally entitled to it.

Arizona’s new law—spurred by changing demographics in the Southwest—essentially requires police to demand “papers” from anyone they might believe to be undocumented. The federal government recently responded that such laws appear too close to institutionalized racial profiling.

“The idea that you can tell someone is undocumented just by looking at them institutionalizes racism,” Guillen agreed.

“I’m an American. I was born in Texas. My entire family are Texans. We’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, but if you’re just going to look at us, I don’t think you can tell the difference.”

Correa added, “If someone walked up to you and said ‘I need you to prove right this minute that you are an American citizen,’ could you prove that? A driver’s license doesn’t prove that. A birth certificate might prove that, but who carries their birth certificate around with them?”

“The Latino community across the country is very concerned,” Guillen admitted.

Echoing that concern, the U.S. attorney general last week filed a legal challenge to Arizona’s law, deeming it unconstitutional. Attorney General Eric Holder argues it’s the federal government’s sole authority to regulate immigration. States, though, complain the feds just aren’t up to the task.

President Barack Obama weighed in last week, imploring Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform to a “fundamentally broken” system. The remedies have long been known: bolstering enforcement of existing laws while offering a path to citizenship for many of the approximately 12 million people in the United States illegally.

“What’s discouraging is seeing other states that are taking up a similar type of action as Arizona,” Guillen said. “In Washington, the Minutemen and their cohorts are going into small towns and trying to get resolutions passed that support a hardening of immigration law. And, of course, there is no talk of offering those illegally in the country a path to become legal citizens.

“The most serious element in my view is that it has become criminalized to be undocumented,” Correa observed. She explained, “To be undocumented is a civil offense, like getting a traffic citation. The change from a civil offense to a criminal offense happened during the Bush administration. Clinton didn’t help at all” when he enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act tried to address rising levels of undocumented immigration.

“Immigration reform has been very seriously impacted by a suffering U.S. economy,” Guillen admitted. “Immigration has been looked at through an economic lens, and the need for labor in this country over the past 15 to 20 years. That view is very different from the view of immigration through history, where we see ourselves as a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures that made this country great.”

Peeling away the layers, the anger seems less about illegal immigration, a problem eased by making legal immigration easier, than about immigration in general—who gets to come to this country, and what culture they’re allowed to bring.

“I have tried to reach out to the Minutemen and have conversations with them on immigration issues,” Guillen said. “They tell me, ‘I don’t want to walk down the streets of Lynden and hear Spanish being spoken by people like you.’”

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