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Farmers, immigrant advocates, others support bill

Coalition aims to rein in E-Verify

SEATTLE – In Olympia, it’s not all that often that immigrant advocacy groups and farmers are on the same side of a proposed bill.

But the unlikely allies have teamed up this session to push a measure aimed at stopping more cities and counties from adopting a federal program that checks an individual’s eligibility to work in the country.

Known as E-Verify, the Internet-based program has been adopted by 11 cities and counties in Washington state.

Supporters of the program say it provides a free and easy way of doing background checks and avoiding paperwork problems that could lead to losing workers to questionable documents or facing fines for hiring an illegal immigrant.

Some supporters of E-Verify offer other rationales.

“The reasons Lakewood approved E-Verify were to protect the legal workers and to create fair wages in the labor market,” said Michael Savage, director of government affairs for the Pierce County city. “If undocumented workers are taking jobs illegally, it artificially deflates the wages.”

But other than the cities of Lakewood and Kennewick, opposition to the bill that would slow down E-Verify seems minor so far.

Backers have lined up a formidable coalition of farmers, immigrant groups, labor and religious groups, while other key interest groups in Olympia, including business organizations, have chosen to remain neutral.

“Sometimes you find common ground and it makes all the sense in the world to join forces in trying to win your battle,” said Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League.

Gempler has teamed up with OneAmerica, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, to push the bill forward.

Farmers and immigrant groups have often clashed, mostly along the lines of minimum wage, housing conditions and other issues of workers’ rights.

But the two groups have found common ground on the issue of illegal immigration. Farmers need the labor. Advocacy groups often decry stern enforcement by the federal government.

And sometimes the alliances are not necessarily public. Farmers mostly stayed on the sideline publicly last year when moderate and conservative lawmakers of both parties pushed to demand proof of citizenship when obtaining a driver’s license. OneAmerica and others fought hard to kill the bill, which eventually did not get a floor vote.

On the E-Verify bill, Gempler’s counterparts at the state Farm Bureau have decided to remain neutral.

“We have some members who are supportive of this legislation, some who feel the bill does not harm or help agriculture in the short term, and some who are concerned about the unintended consequences of pursuing any state legislation (pro or con) on E-Verify,” the farm bureau wrote in a statement to lawmakers.

But Gempler decided to be more public and joined OneAmerica executive director Pramila Jayapal in testimony to lawmakers this past week.

Both say that a national overhaul of the immigration system is needed before more enforcement is mandated, and state and local governments shouldn’t interfere.

“We’re not saying we never want E-Verify, but do it when you have immigration reform,” Jayapal said.

For Gempler, a worst-case scenario would be for Washington to make E-Verify mandatory for all employers.

The bill was approved by committee on Friday and is expected to get a floor vote in the House.

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