BELLINGHAM - After a Tuesday, Feb. 19, visit to Whatcom County to hear local viewpoints on immigration issues, U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene said she is hopeful that a comprehensive immigration reform bill can be passed in the current session of Congress.
"There has been a bipartisan dialog," DelBene said. "That's a big change from the last Congress."
As DelBene sees it, a meaningful reform measure would include what is being called an "earned path to citizenship" for workers who are already in the country without legal status. She thinks at least some Republican members of Congress are now willing to discuss the idea as part of a package that includes improved border security.
DelBene, a Medina Democrat, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee that is working on a new immigration bill. In November 2012 she was elected to represent the redrawn 1st District, which includes most of Whatcom County outside Bellingham.
At an afternoon meeting with farm workers and immigrant rights advocates at SuperMario's Restaurant, 3008 Northwest Ave., she heard stories of some local people whose families have been split by deportations.
Farm worker Nelida Moreno recalled how her husband had been deported to Mexico about two years ago, leaving her in this country to raise their children alone. She said she didn't understand how it could be considered right for the government to break up her family.
"We're not causing crimes," Moreno told DelBene. "We're working here with our children. ... Without us there would be no harvest."
Another woman, Guadalupe De la Mora, said she has been raising her brother's children since he was deported. She told DelBene she hopes that a reform bill can include some provision for reuniting parents and children in cases like that.
Juan Madrigal, who works in the Head Start program, told DelBene that many Hispanic families now in this country are leery of proposals for a new "guest worker" program to bring Mexican workers into the United States to harvest crops. They don't want to be displaced by that kind of program, and they hope that a reform bill will give them a chance to legalize their own status and keep working.
Restaurateur Mario Nolasco, owner of SuperMario's, said he also heads a local religious congregation, and many of the members of his church have immigration problems. Some, he said, have been deported after local police officers called U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to act as interpreters - a practice widely criticized by immigrant rights advocates because it is said to discourage illegal immigrants from contacting the police when they are victims of crime.
Local law enforcement agencies and CBP officials have said they are trying to take steps to address those concerns and reduce reliance on immigration officers for interpreter services.
J. Manuel Reta, a Ferndale businessman who serves on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, encouraged those in attendance to contact him if they feel they are being targeted by law enforcement.
"Racial profiling is against the law," Reta said.
Earlier in the day, DelBene met with Whatcom County farmers to hear their concerns about access to a legal labor force when berries and other crops are ready to be picked. DelBene told the group that farmers say they are often faced with a labor shortage.
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, told DelBene she thinks labor shortages would disappear if farm wages were better.
DelBene told the group that she and others in Congress are working toward comprehensive legislation that will include more humane outcomes for immigrants, while also addressing the needs of farmers for a legal labor supply, and the demands from some businesses for more visas for highly-skilled science and technical people.
She also expressed hope that Congress doesn't neglect the issue for decades when and if a new law is enacted. The last comprehensive bill was passed during the Reagan administration, and DelBene said it would be better to keep the issue in focus and make regular adjustments to immigration laws and policies.
Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.