OLYMPIA – State and local agencies would be limited in what help they can give to federal agencies trying to enforce civil immigration laws under a bill supporters say is designed to expand new business opportunities for immigrants in Washington.
But opponents of the legislation say law enforcement officers should continue to cooperate, and the state shouldn’t get involved in an immigration debate that is best decided at the federal level.
One portion of the bill would set up an 11-member “work group” to develop strategies for more career and business opportunities in Washington. State agencies would provide services without regard to citizenship or immigration status.
But another part would limit assistance for civil immigration enforcement – cases that involve people who have entered the country without proper authorization but haven’t committed serious crimes – in public schools, government-operated health facilities, courthouses and shelters. It wouldn’t allow state funds, personnel or equipment to be used to target residents based on their immigration status.
People being detained by local law enforcement officials would be told they have a right to refuse interviews with federal immigration officers.
“This bill separates out the state from federal activity,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island. “Our taxpayer dollars need to work for Washington. It doesn’t prevent federal officials from doing what they are paid to do.”
Jennyfer Mesa of the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition told the Senate Law and Justice Committee that some undocumented residents won’t call police or seek health care for fear of being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“People are afraid to report crime, and public health and safety are at risk,” she said.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, called the bill and the criticism of federal immigration enforcement “one-sided,” because failures to cooperate also have led to problems.
“It’s a mistake for local law enforcement to not cooperate as they have done for years with federal law enforcement,” Padden said. “In general, I favor cooperation.”
James McMahan, a spokesman for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the bill would put local law enforcement between opposing forces in an immigration debate that should be decided at the federal level.
Local law enforcement wants all members of the community to feel safe working with them, McMahan said. They generally divide civil and criminal immigration enforcement cases.
“In our minds, civil immigration enforcement is as relevant to a law enforcement officer as whether or not an individual has paid their income taxes – in and of itself, it is not relevant to us,” he said. If immigration status becomes relevant in a criminal matter, they believe they need to preserve their ability to work with federal officials.
Local law enforcement officials are working on possible changes with sponsors, “but we’re not there yet,” McMahan said.
The committee could vote on whether to approve or amend the bill next week.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.