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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hundreds rally for expanding help for undocumented immigrants in WA

By Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — Three immigrant justice campaigns for unemployment benefits and health care for undocumented immigrants and greater support for asylum-seekers brought hundreds of people together at a rally Wednesday in Olympia.

“The people united, will never be divided,” the crowd of about 380 chanted. Buses and cars honked in support as the demonstrators made their way to the steps of the Capitol from downtown Olympia.

The march and rally were led by the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, the largest immigrant-led organization in the state, with a coalition of more than 400 immigrant and refugee rights organizations. They called attention to bills and other legislative actions to increase support for undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Washington is home to 246,000 undocumented immigrants, half of whom are uninsured, and almost a quarter live below the federal poverty level, according to 2019 data from the Migration Policy Institute. Washington is also one of two states that saw increases to their undocumented immigrant population between 2017 and 2021, according to 2023 data from the Pew Research Center.

Advocates at the rally urged lawmakers to create a separate unemployment benefits system for undocumented workers, provide health care for all low-income residents regardless of their immigration status, and support the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers.

“They’re not just luxuries,” said Adrianna Suluai, policy director of LGBTQ+ rights organization Utopia Washington. “These are the care and safety nets that our communities need to thrive.”

Under federal law, undocumented immigrants don’t have access to federal health care or unemployment benefits. However, states can choose to use state funding to support undocumented people.

Washington does not have guaranteed unemployment benefits for undocumented immigrants, impacting more than 156,000 undocumented workers.

House Bill 1095, sponsored by Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland, and Senate Bill 5109, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, would allow undocumented workers to apply for unemployment insurance without affecting immigration status.

“While the bill has not moved forward, we will not stop,” Saldaña said at the rally.

Colorado became the first state to offer unemployment benefits to undocumented workers last year. California had a similar bill in its Legislature, which was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing a potentially high cost.

But some oppose the idea. Julia Gorton, from the Washington Hospitality Association, testified Jan. 13, saying that a state-level program could put employers in violation with federal work authorization rules.

“It puts employers in a difficult position, possibly putting them at risk of those federal penalties,” Gorton said.

Advocates also pushed for special allocations in the budget.

Washington recently expanded health care access for undocumented immigrants through a federal waiver filed in May. Families can now purchase coverage together through the Washington Healthplanfinder following its approval in November.

Early this year, California became the first state to expand health care coverage to all undocumented immigrants through its state program, Medi-Cal, funded almost entirely with state dollars.

Advocates want legislators to add a budget proviso to allocate money to further expand quality health care for undocumented immigrants that includes preventive, gender affirming and abortion care.

They also raised concerns for how state and local governments should address a recent increase in asylum-seekers gathering at a church in Tukwila, since no government agency has taken full responsibility for the crisis.

According to advocates, an estimated 14,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Washington in 2023. The Newly Arrived Migrants Campaign advocates for a budget proviso to provide housing and other basic needs.

“We can’t complain why people come to our shores,” said Catalina Velasquez, executive director of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. “We don’t destroy the world and say how did you end up here.”

Currently, community groups and nonprofit organizations are doing the work of government to support undocumented and newly arrived migrants, said Andrea Soroko Naar, co-founder of the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice Northwest.