By Ricardo Sanchez, Special to the Tri-City Herald
SEATTLE -- Gov. Chris Gregoire made national news after leading an agricultural delegation to Washington, D.C., in October of this year to advocate for immigration reform.
The governor knows of the devastating economic consequences if Congress, in an act to "control our borders," required employers to verify that their workers have a right to work in the U.S.
Regarding the E-verify proposal that threatens to bring Washington's agricultural industry to its knees, Gregoire said, "Now, why -- in this recession, as hard-hit as we are -- would we, the state of Washington, support that?"
Gov. Gregoire is right to point out that, without comprehensive changes to federal immigration laws, we should not impose laws or penalties that could destroy agriculture, one of our state's most important and productive industries.
Washington is the top producer in the nation of several labor-intensive crops, including apples, sweet cherries, pears, red raspberries and hops. Apples alone topped the $1.75 billion mark in 2007.
In a recent article that appeared in the News Tribune of Tacoma, Jon Wyss, president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, described Washington as "the refrigerator to the world."
Fulfilling that role requires the efforts of undocumented workers. State farm groups acknowledge that of the 92,000 workers who are needed for seasonal harvests, nearly 72 percent are "document-challenged."
Losing that much of a work force would be impossible for any industry to absorb. Alabama and Georgia growers are learning the hard way what happens when states crack down on employing undocumented, or document-challenged, workers, as employers would have it.
Typically, those workers leave by the thousands and are replaced by a trickle of U.S. workers who last for two or three days, or less.
Simply put, Washington would not have a world-class agricultural industry without undocumented workers. Consumers in our state and throughout the world have enjoyed the fruits of their labor for decades. Several other industries also have benefited from undocumented workers, including hotel-motel, restaurant, roofing, construction, landscaping and others.
The children of these workers often arrive in the U.S. at pre-school age or earlier. Many are making the most of their constitutional right to a K-12 education. Today, record numbers are graduating from Washington high schools, some with honors and others as senior-class salutatorians and valedictorians. While some make it to our universities and continue to excel, most don't because they do not qualify for state or federal financial aid programs.
To help change this, we intend to ask the governor and the Legislature to make undocumented students eligible for the State Need Grant program, which helps low-income students pay for college.
California approved such a bill earlier this year, joining Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico as states that provide financial aid for undocumented students.
Concurrently, we call on U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings and his colleagues in the U.S. Congress to do their part by approving the DREAM Act. If approved, undocumented students who have lived in the U.S. for five years or more, and have graduated from U.S. high schools, would be allowed to earn permanent legal residency.
With it would come the right to work, making it possible for students to repay the substantial investment we have made in their education.
It is indisputable that undocumented workers have made enormous contributions to our state and nation. After all, if they harmed our economy, it's highly unlikely that Gov. Gregoire would lead the charge to prevent Congress from taking steps that would impede workers from coming to our state -- legal or not. Furthermore, undocumented workers pay taxes, too.
The children of the workers yearn for nothing more than the opportunity to give back to the country that they have adopted and love. Given the opportunity, they could contribute so much more as teachers, doctors, lawyers and skilled workers. Isn't that what our economy can use right now?
* Ricardo Snchez is director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a statewide program of Sea Mar Community Health Centers, based in Seattle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.