On February 17 at 8 a.m., I hopped on the International Community Health Services (ICHS) bus bound for the Asian Pacific American (APA) Legislative Day in Olympia. The day serves as an annual rallying call for the APAs of Washington to ensure their voices are heard at the state capital through organized unity. Community leaders, non-profits, activists, stakeholders and community members call on the Governor and the state legislature to recognize the impacts of their decisions on the greater APA community. This year, the Governor and the legislature proposed a $5 billion dollar budget cut for the state, eliminating many services that the APA community heavily relies on.
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Pouring through our paper lunch bag provided by ICHS, with IE intern, Jintana Lityouvong, we’re expecting a long, cold, and boring day with politicians and older people. I was only right about the cold part. The young and veteran activists had tremendous amounts of energy during the rally. They were cheering, holding up their signs, and getting all fired up to march into the legislative building. To many of the seniors, this wasn’t just some political event. This was a day for the state’s leaders to listen to them and see the faces of the APA community.
The day begins with a scheduled trek to Olympia — some attendees join shuttles organized by local organizations, while others carpool. A crowd of thousands gathered for a rally on the capital campus, situated strategically in front of the legislative building, within earshot of politicians. An energetic rally ensues, prompted by a very enthusiastic Lua Pritchard, the current executive director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center in Tacoma. After numerous empowering speeches from multiple organizations, representing different Asian ethnic groups in the state, and a speech from Gov. Christine Gregoire herself, the crowd breaks up to attend legislative sessions to have an opportunity to speak with their respective legislators on issues that matter to them.
Below are some of the issues that were brought up during the legislative sessions and conveyed in a recent report distributed the day-of:
State Food Assistance Program
The State Food Assistance (SFA) program started when Congress eliminated food assistance benefits for legal immigrants. With the proposed budget cut, thousands of families will struggle to put food on their tables. There are families surviving off of less than $25 dollars worth of food stamps every month.
At one legislative session I attended, an older woman spoke about her experience relying on food stamps and begged the legislator not to take away her already scarce income for food for her family.
Naturalization Services and Washington New Americans Program
Many federal services and benefits for low-income families are not available to legal immigrants and refugees until they become citizens. These services help over 600 elderly and disabled immigrants and refugees become naturalized each year. As a result, they become eligible for federal SSI programs and no longer have to rely on other state-funded benefits. This is one of the most cost-effective programs funded by the state.
Health Care Issues
Medical Interpretation services are critical to the lives of over 400,000 immigrants with limited English proficiency. Many community leaders spoke up about the governor’s proposal to eliminate this service. It will risk the lives of patients and over exhaust the emergency room with high costs.
Basic Health Plan offers affordable health care coverage for working adults who are either not offered or cannot afford health insurance. The Governor has proposed this program to be eliminated in the budget. At another legislative session I attended, an older Vietnamese woman broke down and cried as she asked State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Sen. Adam Kline not to take away her insurance. She expressed that she had just gotten involved in an accident but had lost her job, so she didn’t have the insurance to cover the costs. The medical bills were overwhelming and all she wanted was to be healthy, so she could “keep working hard to become a good citizen.”
This story brought tears to my eyes while I was filming the session, and I could see both legislators wiping their eyes as well. “This is why it’s so important for you to be here and share your stories with us,” said Rep. Tomiko-Santos.
The Children’s Health Program is a children’s medical program that provides coverage to low-income children regardless of immigration status. This program has been proposed to only cover documented children in the future, adding to the burden of many immigrant families who cannot afford health care.
Protect Vulnerable Youth from Gang Violence
The so-called “Anti-Gang” legislation (HB 1126) is being proposed to increase the penalties of youths and to issue civil orders known as injuctions, to be issued against people law enforcement suspects may be gang members. Sixteen year-old high school student, Dean Uppasai, spoke up during one of the legislative sessions to address this proposed bill. Uppasai stated that HB 1126 will give officers the ability to racially profile vulnerable youths. Instead, he suggested, the funding should be allocated towards creating resources to keep these youths out of gangs.
Eliminating or Restricting Access to Driver’s Licenses
I wish I could have spoken up for this issue in particular. There are over six bills being proposed to eliminate or restrict access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Knowing many undocumented immigrants and students personally, this issue struck home for me. These bills will threaten the safety of everyone on the road as undocumented immigrants continue to drive without proper testing and eligibility. And implementing these bills will only increase costs for the state.
These are only a few of the many issues being discussed. But, there are countless personal stories profoundly impacted by each. During this APA Legislative Day, I witnessed the fear and the agony, but also the spirit of perseverance in the participants. Despite the language barriers, they still stood up for themselves and were ready to march into the legislative building to let their voices be heard in-person. It was an amazing scene, to see this crowd banding together, across all ages and ethnicities, rallying in the cold for the same cause: a better future for the APA community.
Additional issues that concern the APA community:
- Preserving the Limited English Proficient (LEP) Pathway to promote economic self-sufficiency for refugees and immigrants.
- Maintaining Long Term Care, which supports seniors and people with disabilities.
- Preserving the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA)
- Reducing Max. Sentences for Gross Misdemeanors by one day to avoid activating deportation proceedings.
- Small Business and Economic Development