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Originally published June 13, 2010 at 8:40 PM | Page modified June 13, 2010 at 8:41 PM

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Immigrants push state initiative targeting those here illegally

Two women, both legal immigrants to the U.S., were answering questions and collecting signatures on what might seem an unlikely ballot initiative: one that would crack down on illegal immigrants living in Washington state.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Lorie Graff married her American husband at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s, before returning to Canada to apply for a green card so she could live in the U.S. legally.

In the 1990s, Tiarani Samsi was able to finally follow her husband to the U.S. from Indonesia, after waiting three years for the legal papers.

On Sunday, the two women — now both U.S. citizens and close friends — stood outside the entrance to the Tastin' n Racin' Festival at Lake Sammamish Park, answering questions and collecting signatures on what might seem an unlikely ballot initiative: one that would crack down on illegal immigrants living in the state.

"Everybody should have to follow the right path," Samsi said. "That's only fair."

In the debate over illegal immigration, people like Samsi and Graff, who came to this country legally, seldom speak out against illegal immigration.

Rather, many legal immigrants lend their voices to marches and protests in the belief the fate of all immigrants is inextricably linked.

I-1056, the initiative Graff and Samsi support, would deny driver's licenses to all illegal immigrants in Washington state, one of only three states that allow it.

Additionally, it would deny them most nonemergency public benefits, including lottery winnings and college assistance.

It would require all employers — public and private — to use a federal verification system to identify illegal immigrants and require all government agencies, including law enforcement, to cooperate with immigration authorities.

Beginning in 2006 and every year since, one group or another of Washington citizens has tried — and failed — to get similar initiatives either on the statewide ballot or before the Legislature.

July 2 deadline

This year, they need at least 241,153 signatures by July 2 to get the measure on the November ballot. Craig Keller, an activist heading the initiative, said that without money their chances remain slim.

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Even the state Republican Party, which held its convention in Vancouver, Wash., over the weekend, isn't supporting I-1056.

The measure was included in the "do not pass" packet of resolutions that failed to win party endorsement at the convention.

"There's a minority of influential people who are uncomfortable with an honest discussion with the immigration issue," Keller said. "They either want to recruit illegals into the party or they have a business interest in making money from the status quo."

Graff said her feelings about immigration haven't changed in the more than 50 years she's been in the U.S.

"I was married in the U.S. but chose to return to Canada, so I could come back here legally. That was important to me," she said.

It took four months for her paperwork to be processed. These days, it can take many years for separated spouses to reunite.

She recognizes that Canadians are treated much differently than Mexicans, although both come from countries that share a border with the U.S. Mexicans need a visa to enter the United States. Canadians and people from most European countries do not.

Further, most of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. have no easy way to make themselves legal. Individuals would need an immediate family member, like a spouse, to petition on their behalf for legal status.

And even then, they may have to return to their home country and wait up to 10 years before they can return here legally.

Enforcement backed

Graff said the U.S. has the right to enforce its immigration laws.

"I understand the plight of poor people who continue to want to come here," she said. "But if you come here without going through the proper process you should be deported."

Samsi, who first came to the U.S. in 1995, three years after she and her husband married, said she understands the draw this country has on people like them — the economic advantages, the opportunities for a better life and education for their children.

But she said, "I believe you have to be legal if you want to work in the U.S."

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

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