Wendell Hannigan says he understands the hardships of the immigrants who cross the border illegally each year to work in the orchards of Washington's Yakima Valley. They're just trying to make a living, he says -- doing work that no one else will.
He sees the growers' viewpoint, too: When the fruit is ripe, it has to be picked. But the law is the law, the 65-year-old says, and if the federal government won't put its foot down, citizens have to.
On Jan. 13, Hannigan, a native of the Yakama tribe, filed a voters' initiative that would require employers and government agencies in the state to verify the immigration status of all workers and applicants for public benefits -- a law, Hannigan says, that will help reverse the job losses and drug-related crime he attributes to a mass influx of undocumented immigrants in Yakima Valley.
The Respect Washington Act of 2009, Initiative 1043, is a duplicate of I-409, a failed legislative initiative filed last year by a primarily Seattle-based group, Respect Washington, and the fourth initiative attempt like it since 2006. Like I-409, the new initiative calls on government employees to cooperate with immigration enforcement, including running the names of anyone over 14 applying for assistance through the federal SAVE database and requiring proof of legal status to get a driver's license.
The act would also strike down Seattle's and King County's immigrant sanctuary laws, prohibit the type of day-labor placement services that Seattle's CASA Latina provides for undocumented workers, and outlaw replacing a legal worker with an illegal one, with employers required to check all names in E-Verify, a federal database of Social Security numbers.
Immigrant and civil rights activists say that goes much further than an initiative filed in 2006 and 2007 by Bob Baker, a Seattle-area member of the private Minuteman border patrollers, and would lead to rampant racial profiling and discrimination. But Seattle's One America (formerly Hate Free Zone) says it's hoping the initiative simply dies quietly, as its predecessor did, before gaining any momentum.
After announcing last year's I-409 at a Minuteman meeting in Yakima Valley, Respect Washington did not submit any signatures to qualify it for the ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office. With few resources and a court challenge to contend with before the group can start collecting signatures, Hannigan says, that could easily happen this year as well.
On Feb. 17, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a ballot title challenge to change the wording of the initiative summary that voters would see, a move that delays the printing and circulation of I-1043 petitions. A hearing on that is scheduled Feb. 27 in Olympia's Thurston County Superior Court.
After that, Hannigan says, it's going to require paid gatherers to collect the 241,153 signatures required by July 3 to qualify for the ballot and, at the moment, Respect Washington has little money, with past allies -- including the Minuteman group and Grassroots of Yakima Valley -- hanging back this year.
"They're pretty much getting burned out," he says. "The interest that may have been there two or three years ago may not be there now."
People from around the state have offered to help gather the signatures, but "it's a steep battle and it's going to take a large effort," Hannigan says. "It's not going to be attainable on a volunteer basis."
"Unless we get donations," he says, "I don't think we're going to collect the signatures."
Hannigan is a longtime Democratic Party activist and former tribal council member who testified before Congress in 1998 on the federal government's failures in the area of fisheries habitat recovery. Within the past few years, he says, he's come to believe the government has also failed at stopping a mass migration that he cites as the cause of a $140 million marijuana-growing operation that got busted last year on the Yakama reservation.
"People get reliant on the drugs and it causes burglaries and robberies," he says. "The crime situation is not a direct result of the immigrants, but it has risen dramatically because of [the] large influx."
Last year, he started his own private guest-worker program to verify the legal status of every worker on the reservation and provide labor for its 150,000 acres of farmland. The idea ran afoul of U.S. Immigration, Hannigan says, over the issue of the Yakama Nation's authority to designate who can be a guest on U.S. soil. But articles about him in the Yakima Herald-Republic led members of Respect Washington to contact and recruit him for the I-1043 campaign.
The odds of I-1043's success may be long, but it's a way, he says, to keep the issue of immigration on the table.
"If we all ignore it, it's obviously not going to go away," Hannigan says. "The main thrust at this point is to keep it alive and point out to the federal government that it's an issue that needs to be resolved."