Bruce Chandler surprised some by giving an impassioned floor speech for a bill that would make undocumented resident students eligible for the state’s need-based tuition grant.
After all, he’s the Republican representative from the 15th District, long one of the state’s conservative strongholds even with its 54 percent majority Latino population.
But for Chandler, who addressed the House just before the bill he sponsored, House Bill 1817, passed 77-20 on Wednesday, it wasn’t an evolution in his thinking or a radical departure. It’s where he has stood for more than a decade since he backed legislation, now the law, making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition.
“I’ve always believed these are kids who not only are here, but they’re going to continue to be in our community,” said Chandler, who has owned an orchard in the Granger area since 1985. “The issue for me is do we give them the opportunity to be actively engaged or not?”
Led by Chandler and Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, a number of House Republicans broke rank to vote in favor of the bill, including Reps. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, and Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
Chandler and Ross took a calculated risk in sponsoring the bill, and the downside of that math was quickly made clear by tea party conservatives who vowed to work to unelect both.
And, their normally lock-step Senate colleagues from the Yakima Valley declined to weigh in ahead of the upper chamber’s consideration of the measure, choosing not to answer a reporter’s question of how they would vote.
“In all honesty, I haven’t looked at the bill, so I haven’t made up my mind what I’m going to do,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said through a legislative aide that he is not sure how he would vote on the bill.
Chandler’s fellow 15th District Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, voted against the bill, as did Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg.
Ross said in a telephone interview that he regards the bill as an investment in the future of the nation.
“If I have the opportunity to invest in a kid who wants to become a taxpaying, upstanding American, I want to support that avenue of opportunity,” Ross said.
Under the bill, dubbed the Washington Dream Act to draw parallels with federal efforts to support young undocumented immigrants, those students would be eligible for a state need grant if they have been accepted or applied for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, status. That program stems from an executive order from the president in 2012 that granted a temporary reprieve from deportation and eligibility for employment status to young undocumented residents who meet certain criteria.
DACA also requires the students to have lived in the state three years prior to receiving their high school diploma, spent their full senior year at a high school in the state and continued to live in the state prior to enrollment at an institution of higher education. If they have not applied for Deferred Action status, they must state their intent in writing to apply for citizenship as soon as they can.
Meanwhile, as the Chandler-Ross bill awaits a hearing to be scheduled in the Republican-controlled Senate Higher Education Committee, it could be derailed by political rivalries, ongoing budget issues and fundamental disagreements among Republicans.
Higher Education Committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said it would be more than a week before a decision would be made to schedule the bill for a hearing. Bailey, who was also noncommittal on the measure, said the issue has only come before the state because of congressional inaction on immigration reform.
“We do not have a clear definition of how someone can come here, live here and acquire citizenship,” Bailey said. “It’s wrong that that’s not being solved.”
Bailey said the Senate version of the bill, introduced by Democratic Senate minority leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, never received a hearing because she expected the House version to pass.
Murray, however, made clear his frustration that the Senate version was not heard, which he laid at the feet of the the mostly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus.
“The House doesn’t have a bipartisan coalition, but you have a bipartisan vote,” Murray said in a telephone interview. “I know there are Republicans who would vote for this if it was brought to the Senate floor.”
Opponents argue the state need grant is already underfunded because about 32,000 students are eligible but won’t receive financial aid. Adding the more than 500 estimated eligible undocumented students to that list only makes the state’s promise harder to keep, they argue.
“Here we are making another promise we know we cannot financially meet,” Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said addressing the House prior to the vote.
More conservative opponents, such as Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, added that support for the bill was being fueled by emotion without deference to the nation’s immigration laws.
“And as much compassion as folks in my own caucus and folks across the aisle are exhibiting today, it does not change the fact that we have to address the foundation of this question and that is the rule of law,” Overstreet said in his floor address Wednesday.
Chandler said the state can’t afford to wait for Congress to act because the ramifications are already a reality. He and Ross both expressed optimism that the debate would now turn to allocating more money to the state’s need grant for tuition.
“It improves the prospect of taking a look at serious funding,” Chandler said.
But no such effort goes unpunished.
The Republican representatives who supported the bill drew the ire of grass-roots conservative organizations such as the Central Washington Tea Party. Kirk Groenig, the group’s founder and organizer, promised Ross, Chandler and others would regret their decision to support undocumented residents in their re-election campaigns.
“Make no mistake, this will be an issue,” Groenig said. “There are other people who supported similar things and they got voted out.”
Chandler has served in the House since 1999 and last year had no opponent in the primary or general election. Ross has served since 2007 and handily defeated his Democratic challenger last year.
Ross said he has heard from a lot of constituents who opposed his vote, but he shrugged off the notion his conservative credentials are damaged.
“Whether someone labels me as conservative is something they have to come to,” Ross said. “I have to look at issues independently and do my best with them.”
Both Chandler and Ross said they would be talking with Senate Republicans to encourage support for the bill. Chandler said tensions in the Senate require a more methodical approach, and he wasn’t willing to predict the bill’s fate in uncharted territory.
“It’s a change of pace,” Chandler said. “It can be a somewhat unpredictable process.”
But Chandler said communities face consequences if they don’t enable young people, especially those brought here by no choice of their own, to further their education and contribute to society.
“It leaves the community poorer, with less leadership, and so it’s not really about immigration,” Chandler said. “It’s saying if you meet the same requirements as other students, we’re going to treat you all the same.”