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Experts talk immigration reform and human trafficking

Mike Gempler

Mike Gempler -

Michael D. Gempler, of the Washington Growers League, spoke about the H-2A program which would help foreign farm workers gain legal status to work in the United States.

Photo by Alisa Reznick

John Urquhart

John Urquhart

Eight million undocumented workers in the United States now have the opportunity to get on the path toward citizenship, and the country is ready for proposed immigration reforms, according to four local experts on immigration reform who spoke Thursday afternoon at the UW.

The four professionals — Jorge Baron, Mike Gempler, Rebecca Smith, and John Urquhart — gathered in William H. Gates Hall to include students in the ongoing conversation about immigration reform and human trafficking.

The discussion was presented by the Women’s Center and co-sponsored by the school of law, the Jackson School of International Studies, and the center for global studies. The panel was moderated by the executive director of the Women’s Center, Sutapa Basu. Basu said immigration reform is at the forefront of our legislative agenda.

“Most of us would agree [that] we do need reform on our immigration policies since these policies will affect millions of people, both at home and around the world,” Basu said.

Each panelist was given 15 minutes to speak about the two issues.

Baron, the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit immigration services provider that focuses on helping people navigate the immigration system and the problems therein, explained what immigration reform would do for the United States and Washington state, and where the country is now in terms of immigration reform.

“A significant challenge we’ve had is that we have 11 million undocumented members of our community, [and] 260,000 of those individuals live in Washington state,” Baron said. “That is what we are hoping reform legislation will address.”

According to Baron, now is the time for legislation regarding immigration. On April 17, eight senators presented Senate Bill S744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, to Congress. The bill would make significant changes to immigration policy and could be approved by June.

Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League, a nonprofit organization that seeks to represent agricultural workers on issues of labor and employment, said that while the mainstream was silent on the issue of the immigration system, more people are stepping up and saying change is needed.

“We’ve lost this battle over the last many years in the dining rooms, churches, [and] family reunions,” Gempler said. “The mainstream was silent, and that had to change, and it is changing.”

Gempler discussed agricultural workers’ issues with immigration and the H-2A program, which exists to guarantee employers a legal labor force and also to safeguard the jobs of American workers. The program allows the recruitment of foreign workers only when enough capable domestic workers cannot be found.

Smith, coordinator for the Immigrant Workers Justice Project, which seeks to expand and defend the labor rights of workers, and the National Employment Law Project, helped the audience distinguish sex and labor trafficking.

Urquhart, the King County Sheriff, finished off the conversation discussing a recent human trafficking case involving several women from Thailand who paid $60,000 to get to the United States. The sheriff ’s office conducted an extensive investigation and was eventually able to charge the individuals who brought them here. “If this is not human trafficking, then what is?” Urquhart said. “We need to educate the public about the dangers of human trafficking, whether it’s the sex trade or labor issues. It’s exceedingly important that we continue public education.”

The King County Sheriff ’s Office is one of the largest local law enforcement agencies in Washington.

“Our job is to protect people and to solve crimes,” Urquhart said. “If an undocumented immigrant doesn’t call us, then we aren’t going to solve any crimes. How do we get information if people are afraid to come to us?”

The four panelists and the moderator each sought to spread knowledge of issues surrounding immigration policy and human trafficking through their own arenas.

Rebecca Mauldin, a graduate student who attended the discussion, said that while it was a great introduction to the topic, she wished the panelists had offered suggestions to those who are passionate about what they could do to help.

“There was a lot of policy discussion but not a call to action,” Mauldin said.

Reach reporter Kate Clark at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @KateClarkUW

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