Elena, a senior at Yakima's Davis High School, walked into U.S. Representative Doc Hastings' office there Tuesday, asking for him to support a bipartisan bill that would create a path to college, work, and citizenship for undocumented students like her. She walked out without any answer from his staff.
Elena, which isn't her real name, wants the Republican congressman to vote this month in favor of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would enable undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they turned 16 to become conditional permanent residents and then citizens if they graduate from high school, successfully complete military service or college, and stay out of trouble. The bill, Elena says, would help her in her quest to attend a state university, qualify for financial aid, and later get good job and live her life without fear of being deported.
She was one of about 40 people who picketed and chanted in support of the DREAM Act in front of Hastings' office building, then delivered a letter urging him to back the bill, which President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders say they want to pass during this month's lame-duck session of Congress. Such rallies are taking place across the country this week at the offices of members of Congress who haven't declared their support for the legislation, which had dozens of Republican co-sponsors in previous years.
This month GOP congressional leaders have promised to block the bill. Opponents say it rewards illegal behavior and would allow legalized young people to bring their undocumented relatives into the U.S.
Many agricultural growers support the bill, as well as broader legislation that would legalize their undocumented workers. Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Growers League, which represents 400 farms, said some growers fear that passing the DREAM Act by itself would weaken the movement to pass comprehensive reform. "But if we can get a little bit now in the form of the DREAM Act," Gempler said, "the support will be there to take the next steps."
While most of the pro-DREAM Act demonstrators in Yakima were Hispanic and Democrat, one was a Republican activist and long-time Hastings supporter. Sue Fenich has come to know and sympathize with the plight of undocumented families in Yakima, where nearly half the population is Hispanic and a significant percentage of public school students are illegal immigrants.
The mother of two adopted Hispanic children, Fenich says she's grown frustrated asking Hastings personally and repeatedly to support the DREAM Act and a path to legalization for undocumented residents — only to be told he’d like to support it but his mail runs 10-1 against it. While campaigning for Dino Rossi in September, she walked an entire parade route pleading with the Republican Senate candidate to back the legislation. All she got was a strained silence.
Now Fenich, apparently giving up on Hastings, has sent a letter to conservative goddess Sarah Palin urging her to endorse the DREAM Act, noting that the bill would help young people who came to the U.S. through no choice of their own, worked hard, and played by the rules. "These kids are Americans," she wrote to Palin. "We have spent millions on their education and then we set them up for failure. It's like we planted a crop, watered and fertilized it, and then left some of the best fruit hanging on the trees to rot. Wouldn't it be better to embrace them and open the door to a financially secure and honorable future… rather than punish them for a situation in which they had no say?”
In her letter, Fenich reminds fellow-Republican Palin – who has cheered the Arizona law to detain and deport illegal immigrants but hasn't backed any path to legalization or citizenship – that Americans have invited Mexicans to come over to harvest our crops, build our houses, wait our tables, and clean our hotel rooms, which seems better than earning $8 a day back home. "Those Mexican mama grizzlies want to feed and protect their young as much as you and I!" she writes, feeding Palin back her own rhetoric.
Besides helping deserving young people, Fenich argues, supporting the DREAM Act will boost Republicans in areas with burgeoning Hispanic populations like Central and Eastern Washington. Noting that Hispanics often are conservative on social issues, she warns Palin that "we Republicans need these conservative people in our camp… If we don't, we run the risk of losing this half of our state to the Democrats."
Does Hastings worry about that prospect? He did not respond to my request for comment made to his staff. His spokesman told the Tri-City Herald that Hastings has not taken a position on the DREAM Act because he doesn't know what language may come out of the Senate. Earlier this year, he said he supported broader legislation to strengthen border control, end illegal immigration, and improve the guest-worker program for agricultural growers. Last year, he floated the possibility of folding DREAM Act-type provisions into a broader bill.
But the Growers League's Gempler sees no immediate hope of Hastings supporting the DREAM Act. Gempler predicts that if it doesn't pass during this month's lame-duck session, it has little or no prospect for passage in the new GOP-controlled House for the next two years, and that growers instead will face tough new scrutiny of their labor force. "With immigration hardliners now coming into the House leadership, I foresee more pressure on the Obama administration to increase enforcement against employers," he said.
George Fearing, a Kennewick attorney who chairs the Yakima Valley's Democratic Party and who participated in Tuesday's demonstration, agrees with Fenich's political assessment of the negative political impact of the GOP's immigration stance. But he also doesn't believe Hastings or other conservatives will come around and vote for the DREAM Act any time soon. "It's going to happen over the next 10 years as more Hispanics vote," he predicts. "Republicans will eventually support Hispanic issues like immigration reform, or else this area will go solidly Democratic. Though from a Democratic perspective, it will be better for us if they don't."
There's more than partisan politics at stake, though, in the battle over the DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001.
Elena says she has undocumented friends at Davis High who are even better students than she is and who want to go to college. "But they say, 'Why go to college if I can't legally get a job after I graduate?’ They don’t know what they’re going to do with their lives."