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NW Immigrants' Groups Link Arms for Regional Clout

October 24, 2011

SEATTLE - Immigrants' rights organizations in the Northwest are taking a new approach to their concerns by working on them regionally, instead of separately by group or state. At the National Immigrant Integration Conference this week in Seattle, groups from Idaho, Oregon and Washington are pointing out that more than 1.4 million Latinos live in the Pacific Northwest.

Francisco Lopez, who heads the Oregon group Causa, says working together makes sense.

"The Pacific Northwest has a regional economy. Many of our workers go between states to work in the fields. There are so many issues that are impacting our community that we need to start looking at the issues for Latinos at the regional level."

One of the conference topics is sure to be Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador's new proposal to speed up the permanent residency process for foreign-born graduate students if they have job offers from high-tech companies. Lopez says it's a start, but ignores the other immigrant workers in the system.

"A college-educated person who has got a job offer for a big company is valuable - but also valuable is a farm worker who has worked for the same farm for 15 years and is very much an integral part of the economic growth of the state."

The primary goal is to keep anti-immigrant laws out of the Northwest, says Lopez, as well as to preserve the progress Latinos have already made on some issues.

Hilary Stern, executive director of the Washington group CASA Latina, says the Hispanic demographics in the northwestern states are similar and so are many of their priorities. One of them is wage theft in the farm and construction industries.

"There are employers who have learned how to 'game' the system, who withhold wages from their workers - and Latino immigrant workers in particular, because there's a perception that a lot of the Latino immigrant workers are undocumented and not going to speak up for their rights."

The groups say they will also focus on tuition equity, access to affordable health care and jobs.

The National Immigrant Integration Conference runs through Oct. 26 at the Westin Seattle, 1900 5th Ave., Seattle. Information is available at www.integrationconference.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - ID