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Citizenship status could be added to anti-discrimination law under Washington bill

The Legislative Building is viewed through a light morning fog, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on opening day of the Washington Legislature. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
The Legislative Building is viewed through a light morning fog, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on opening day of the Washington Legislature. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – The nation’s debate over border security played out on the floor of the Washington Senate on Tuesday as Democrats approved banning discrimination for certain jobs, services and housing based on a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

Republicans pushed back unsuccessfully, saying those who are in the country illegally don’t deserve that special protection.

Washington already protects people against discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation or identity. Protecting them regardless of their immigration status is a way of being more tolerant of everybody who lives in the state, said Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, the bill’s sponsor.

It’s also a response to an increase in hate crimes, Saldaña said. Adding these protections will improve the likelihood that people will feel they can call law enforcement about crime “and participate fully in their communities and neighborhoods,” she added.

“We’re saying no one, simply because of their immigration status, should be discriminated against. We aren’t going to treat you differently,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Seattle, who said his parents were unable to rent an apartment when they first arrived in the United States because they were immigrants.

But Republicans argued the bill was trying to create a new protected class, which could include people who are in the country illegally.

“This takes us beyond being a sanctuary state,” Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said. “It’s saying come to Washington state, you become a protected class. This legislation rewards you for coming here.”

Ericksen introduced an amendment that would have required all businesses with more than 15 employees to check the immigration status of workers through the e-verify system.

“It’s incredibly important to maintain the wages of people who live here currently,” he said. “Illegal immigration hurts wages for people, particularly laborers at the lower end of the socioeconomic wage scale.”

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, called that “a giant state mandate” for all medium and large businesses to use a system that the federal government says is voluntary. Ericksen’s amendment failed.

Immigration law is the province of federal government, not the state, and the Legislature should stay away from it, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t respect everybody as individuals,” he added.

Under the bill, citizenship – or the lack of it – and immigration status would be added to the state anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination in public places, real estate transactions, credit, insurance or employment. A home buyer couldn’t be required to prove citizenship and a landlord couldn’t refuse to rent based on immigration status. A business couldn’t refuse to serve or overcharge people because of their citizenship or immigration status.

The bill would make exceptions for using citizenship or immigration status as a condition of employment if a state or federal law or a government contract requires it. Banks and credit unions could still consider that status for loans under federal law.

If it becomes law, Washington would become one of a handful of states that offer some protections against discrimination for immigration status in housing and other instances. But the Senate bill could be one of the most comprehensive, groups that support it believe.

Alex Hur, of One America, said some states don’t allow discrimination based on national origin but citizenship and immigration status is a different classification.

“I think it’s an important distinction to make,” Hur said, and Washington would likely be the first to add that protection to its overall anti-discrimination law.

Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said she appreciates the intent of the bill, but doesn’t believe it will work if it becomes law because discrimination “is just the way of the world.”

“You can’t legislate discrimination out of people’s lives,” Walsh said.

The bill was sent to the House for a new round of hearings.

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