CAUSA unveils 2011 Latino Legislative Agenda at the Capitol

by Melanie Davis
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Barbara Ghio, Emily McLain, and Frank GarcíaRichard Jones El Hispanic News Writer Salem, OR — The immigrant rights group CAUSA presented its 2011 Latino Legislative Agenda at the State Capitol in mid-February to highlight its critical issues. Five Oregon legislators sat on the panel, aligning themselves with CAUSA’s positions on a half-dozen goals. During the hour-and-a-half event CAUSA Executive Director Francisco López moderated a panel of five lawmakers and five other speakers. At López’s right hand, Frank García outlined several parts of CAUSA’s agenda. García was recently appointed director of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Affirmative Action Office. Key issues included tuition equity for all Oregon high school graduates, driver licenses for all residents of Oregon, health care, housing for farm workers, and protection from crooked employers. License to drive Endorsing the Oregon Driver License Access Act, Sen. Chip Shields (D-Portland) said, “Everybody needs a driver’s license here in the state of Oregon.†Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland), one of the SB 845's  supporters, said the bill would make highways safer as well as giving people the ability to travel to their rural jobs. Tuition equity With a master’s degree in higher education administration from New York University, García pointed out the advantages of keeping tuition fees in the reach of outstanding immigrant students. Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) also has a close connection with higher education. Before being elected to the legislature in 2008, Dembrow taught English at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus. Dembrow told the forum that he had seen many talented high school graduates who could not afford a university education. Emily McLain, executive director, Oregon Students Association, said SB 742 will allow all Oregon high school graduates to get in-state tuition whether or not they are documented. Noting that statistics show that people who do not earn a high school diploma have a higher rate of serving time in prison, Shields argued for tuition equity. “There are far too many minorities in our jails,†he said. Health care Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) looked for a few small changes in Oregon’s health care situation. “I don’t think we can access health care for [everyone] in this session, but we can get more people on it,†he said. Stressing the importance of a state supported program, Greenlick said that without a well-designed plan, health care would be rationed — either by money — or by the color of your skin. Coming from a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers, Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Oregon City) recalled that medical care was not a high priority when he was growing up. “The first time I saw a dentist was when I was 14,†he said. “In 1989 I proposed to the legislature that everyone should have [access to] health care,†Kennemer said. “That didn’t get much traction,†he added ruefully. Noting that health care today carries an outrageous cost, Kennemer said he would be working on making it more available. López summed up his viewpoint on health care forcefully. “We want all children to have access to health care,†he said. “All children!†Housing Though his time in the Peace Corps exposed him to “some pretty bad housing,†Peter Hainley, executive director of CASA of Oregon, said that when he saw the dismal status of Oregon farmworker housing, "I was appalled." “Everybody deserves safe and affordable housing,†he added. CASA also helps coordinate health and dental care. “Our role is to bring money from wherever we can get it [to  fund] our programs,†Hainley said. He said CASA spent $1 million for farm workers housing last year. Hainley expects that figure to grow. “We have a half-dozen new programs in the works now,†he said. Good, honest jobs Not all employers play straight with workers. Some give workers less money than promised — or none at all. Michael Dale said that immigrant workers are most at risk. “Low wage earners are the most likely to be stolen from,†he said. According to Dale, an odd form of justice prevails in this country. “If a child steals from a store, he gets punished,†he said, but “If an employer steals wages, the chances are he won’t get punished.†Barbara Ghio, an attorney, said not only are employers not paying fair wages, but scam artists such as fraudulent debt collectors are stealing from people. Due to the fear of deportation, Ghio said undocumented immigrants are afraid to call the police, even in the case of a violent home. Such victims have no attractive choices. If a wife-beater gets arrested and deported, who, she asked, is going to pay for food for the wife and children? Good bills have a chance CAUSA endorsed both SB 742 and SB 845, calling them “a good first step in ensuring that New Americans will be able to lead safe and productive lives while being the best contributors to our state and nation as they can be.†With bilateral support for the two bills, a little cautious optimism might be in order. Toward the end of the presentation, an optimistic López said he had a feeling that the tuition equity bill would finally become law this year.

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Photo Richard Jones, El Hispanic News Salem attorney Barbara Ghio (left) explains that undocumented immigrants, afraid to call police for help, easily become victims of abuse from unethical employers. Emily McLain and Frank García also participated in CAUSA's panel at the Capitol.