Patty in the News

GRANDVIEW, Wash. -- The need for immigration reform topped the list of concerns that Latino leaders brought Thursday to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who held an hour-long "listening" session at a senior center in the Lower Yakima Valley.

"These laws are ripping families apart," said Marisol Avila of Consejo Eastern Washington, a counseling and referral service. "We have families that can't be families."

Avila and others said adult children are afraid to travel back to Mexico when a parent dies, out of fear they won't get back into the United States. Spouses detained by immigration authorities because of their illegal status are having to leave their young children with older siblings or relatives.

And laws governing the path to citizenship are so slow to churn that people have been waiting more than 20 years for their chance to become legal.

Avila was one of 13 Latino community leaders, educators and business representatives invited to meet with Murray at the Grandview Senior Center. While there was no specific agenda, Murray acknowledged at the beginning the importance of Latinos as a constituency.

"You are very important to me. This is a chance for you to make sure I know what's on your minds," she said.

Several speakers, including Jesus Hernandez of Wenatchee and Ricardo Garcia, founder of Radio KDNA in Granger, urged Murray to work on passing the Dream Act, legislation that would allow undocumented young people to become eligible for citizenship in exchange for a mandatory two years in higher education or military service.

"A top priority should be passage of the Dream Act. It's a no-brainer," said Hernandez, who is a member of the Wenatchee School Board. He said the United States needs to guarantee an educated, domestic workforce instead of relying on imported skilled workers.

But the conversation kept returning to immigration as several speakers told stories of families separated and living in fear.

"Whenever there is a raid, everything in life takes on underlying sense of fear. The fear is there and it never goes away," said Carol Folsom-Hill, who runs La Casa Hogar, a nonprofit organization in Yakima that helps more than 400 immigrant women gain their footing in work and home life.

Murray, who is expected to seek her fifth Senate term next year, said she heard the message.

"It's difficult, hard and a tough balance," Murray said of passing immigration reform. "We've tried it twice in the Senate in the last three years but you've given me good reason to go back and say we have to try again."

Murray said Congress is focused on job creation and health care at the moment. She predicted that the Senate likely would be able to pass a bill before the end of the year but said Republicans are trying to block it with procedural tactics.

"They are dragging things out incessantly," she said.

Tomás Ybarra, vice president of instruction and student services at Yakima Valley Community College, asked Murray to fight for more funding for community colleges, saying they are facing a convergence of increased demand and declining resources.

"I am fearful this will result in a denial of opportunity for our students," Ybarra said.

While several speakers asked for help to combat gangs, Wapato Police Chief Richard Sanchez said the focus on gangs is misleading.

"We have everyone scared that every Hispanic child in the community is a gang member. That's the media. We're making it too big a deal," Sanchez said.

Murray, who recently secured $500,000 for an anti-gang initiative in Yakima County, agreed that if all that adults talk about is gangs, kids will think that's their only option in life. She encouraged all the Latino leaders to be role models.

"You need to tell students you have a master's degree, Marisol," she said to Avila, who recounted recently helping a relative pick apples. Between the two of them, they earned $22 for one bin and it took two and a half hours.

Health-care administrator Vickie Ybarra of the Yakima Farm Workers Clinic, who was in the audience, asked Murray to consider the state's Basic Health Plan a model for offering health care insurance to the working poor.

Hernandez of Wenatchee, who is executive director of Community Choice PHCO, a health-care network, said he is discouraged by Republican health-care proposals that would deny care of children of undocumented immigrants.

"It's more than frustrating that we see bills negate health care benefits for children because their parents may be undocumented. It's inhumane."

- Yakima Herald Republic