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Originally published Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 7:34 PM

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Group will try again for state initiative to curb illegal immigrants' benefits

Undaunted by a string of past failures, a group of Washington residents will try for the fifth straight year to collect signatures for an initiative that would make Washington less attractive to illegal immigrants.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Respect Washington:

www.respectwashington.us

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Undaunted by a string of past failures, a group of Washington residents will try for the fifth straight year to collect signatures for an initiative that would make Washington less attractive to illegal immigrants.

The measure, I-1056, would require all employers — public and private — to use a free federal employment-verification system, E-Verify, to weed out those ineligible to work legally in the U.S.

It would deny them most nonemergency public benefits, including lottery winnings and college assistance, and prevent them from obtaining driver's licenses.

Beginning in 2006 and every year since, a group of individuals who've organized under different names but are now called Respect Washington have failed to get similar initiatives either on the statewide ballot or before the Legislature for passage.

Organizers would need at least 241,153 signatures this year to put the measure on the November ballot. They acknowledge they haven't had a broad volunteer base or strong financial backing.

But this latest attempt comes as some Americans grow more frustrated and hundreds of thousands in the state remain jobless — factors organizers believe could work in their favor this time.

"The political and economic environment in this country and this state have shifted and may lead to a greater interest in people who are now waking up," said Craig Keller, who is leading the group.

Those who work with the region's illegal-immigrant population, however, say they believe Respect Washington hasn't had much success because of the state's accommodating attitude toward all immigrants

"We have diversity in this state," said Dianne Aid, an advocate with St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Auburn, which serves many illegal immigrants.

"And particularly in Western Washington, we have a social fabric that includes immigrants from all over the world, and we tend to honor that," shes said.

Washington is home to an estimated 136,000 illegal immigrants and remains one of only four states where illegal immigrants may still obtain a driver's license.

The initiative seeks to end that, by denying driver's licenses to those who can't prove legal status in the U.S.

Those who favor denying the licenses have said it is one step the state could take to help shore up national security.

But opponents say many illegal immigrants are likely to drive with or without a license, and that those who are licensed at least have passed a driving test and are required to have automobile insurance.

Under the initiative, illegal immigrants would be denied most public benefits — from college-tuition assistance to nonemergency medical care.

The state Department of Social and Health Services spends an estimated $165 million a year on mostly health-care programs that benefit illegal immigrants and their children.

A cornerstone of the initiative would require employers to use the federal E-Verify program to determine if new hires are eligible to work legally in the U.S.

"I personally believe if you can't clean up the employment side, you won't clean up any other areas," Keller said. "You've got to turn off the magnet."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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