SEATTLE — The state House's swift move to advance an immigrants' rights bill on the first day of this year's legislative session could create a wedge issue that might affect the results of the November elections, some political experts said.
Lawmakers in the House on Monday approved with strong bipartisan support a proposal that expands state financial aid for college students in the country without legal status. The measure, however, is likely going nowhere in the Senate because Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democrat leading the predominantly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said his caucus has other priorities to focus on during the 60-day session.
"I'm looking for more dollars for state need grants, but not expanding the pool [of eligible student applicants] at this time," said Sen. Barbara Bailey, Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee.
Spokespeople for Republicans in the House and Senate said their caucuses don't have immigration-related bills they are putting forward this year.
Inaction this session on bills important to immigrants and minorities, such as the so-called Washington Dream Act, could become an election issue in November, when 24 spots in the Senate are contested. Ten of those Senate seats are expected to be challenged vigorously by both parties. Roughly half a dozen of those seats are in suburbs in the greater Puget Sound area, including Tom's.
"It's an issue that can dramatically affect the swing races in suburban districts," said Chris Vance, a Republican political consultant who has worked with immigrant-rights groups, like OneAmerica.
Following a year where Congress failed to reform the nation's immigration laws, the Washington Dream Act is a priority for immigrant-rights groups in Olympia this session. If the bill is signed into law, Washington would become the fifth state in the country to approve state financial aid for college students illegally in the country. California, Texas, New Mexico and Illinois have passed similar legislation.
Proponents have said the average number of college students in Washington each year who can't provide proof of legal residency is about 550. They estimate that number would grow by about 20 or 30 percent if the financial-aid measure is approved.
"Denying financial aid to an entire generation of motivated Washingtonians benefits no one," said Emily Murphy, a lobbyist for OneAmerica, an immigrant rights group. "The Dream Act is about education and the economy, and we want to make sure we have a vibrant economy served by a well-educated workforce."
During the debate on the House floor, opponents of the bill said the state can't afford to expand the state need grants pool. One lawmaker said 30,000 students who applied for state financial aid didn't get it.
"The statistics unfortunately trump the dream at this point," said Republican Rep. Larry Haler of Richland.
Vance said that immigrant-rights groups are a key constituency of the Democratic Party and, combined, they can bring a lot of "passion and money" into a legislative district if they target it. A Republican can diffuse that pressure by supporting such a bill, he said.
But state Republican Party spokesman Keith Schipper said he doesn't buy the argument that immigration-reform issues in Olympia would have an effect on the November elections.
"This is simply a distraction to get the voter minds off the issues they're truly upset about," Schipper said. "This is simply the Democrats fishing."
Voters in November will focus on education issues, the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act and taxes, Schipper said.
Minority and immigrant voters have shown they can affect election results in Washington state, a political expert said. After Gov. Jay Inslee won the governor's office in 2012, University of Washington pollster Matt Barreto estimated that Latino and Asian voters broke 3 to 1 for the Democrat and helped him beat Republican candidate Rob McKenna, who had courted immigrant votes but couldn't shake off the anti-immigrant image of the GOP.
"My hope is that Latino groups realize that the Legislature needs to work or change," said Maru Mora, an immigrant activist and organizer of the annual May Day march in Seattle.
It's harder to ascertain the impact of minority and immigrant voters at a district level. But Democrat political consultant Christian Sinderman pointed out that some of the swing districts for Senate races are in neighborhoods with significant numbers of immigrants.
"These are districts have are socially very progressive, especially the Microsoft and high-tech suburbs with immigrant families," he said. "And even if they're higher income, they're still beneficiaries of having access to higher education and career opportunities."
Vance said he agrees up to a point. The financial-aid measure can be characterized as an education issue and not so much an immigrant rights issue, he said.
"You can make it about education ... the core issue in suburban races — and suburban races are the battleground" for control of the Legislature, Vance said.