Legislature(2003 - 2004)
03/22/2004 03:30 PM L&C
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HB 379-OFFICE OF CITIZENSHIP ASSISTANCE CHAIR ANDERSON announced that the first order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 379, "An Act establishing an office of citizenship assistance in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development." Number 0091 REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE WEYHRAUCH, Alaska State Legislature, sponsor, explained that HB 379 would establish an office of citizenship assistance in the Department of Labor & Workforce Development. He noted that this bill was introduced in another session by then-Senator Pete Kelly from Fairbanks. There are over 3,000 legal aliens in Juneau, many from the Philippines and Tonga, who have a great impact on the economy. Representative Weyhrauch said these immigrants work hard and come to this country to fulfill the American dream of working in freedom, without government intervention, to put food on the table. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH related that as he got to know many of his immigrant constituents, he was profoundly impressed by their desire to work. He noted the unfortunate burdens of government paperwork and bureaucracy, however, and how it is especially difficult for people who were oppressed in their country of origin to turn to government here, since they fear getting in trouble, tend not to be adversarial, or are unfamiliar with the process. By establishing an office of citizenship assistance, he said, he hopes to expand the productivity of legal aliens. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH asked the committee to address the policy issues, saying it is his intent to fund a position within the Department of Labor & Workforce Development so that assistance and direction in job-related matters would be available to legal aliens. This position would also provide policy assistance and direction to the commissioner, or his or her designee, to point out policy impediments for workers and make suggestions to streamline the system. He predicted this would increase employment and business opportunities for legal aliens. Number 0398 REPRESENTATIVE GATTO asked how this bill affects illegal aliens who are currently working here, noting that the sponsor statement referred to naturalized citizens and citizen candidates. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH surmised that until an alien is declared illegal, he/she is legal. This proposed office would not aid anyone to skirt the system; it would serve those requesting help. REPRESENTATIVE GATTO expanded his question, saying that it came from knowing that many aliens come to Juneau by way of the cruise ships, aliens who aren't interested in becoming citizens. He wondered what would happen if one of them asked for assistance in getting a job at this proposed office. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH explained that the office is intended to help people who have some legal status within the system. It is not an office of advocacy to get individuals their legal status. It would exist to assist with employment and filling out forms, and to make referrals to other agencies. Number 0562 REPRESENTATIVE LYNN remarked that the only thing wrong with this bill is that he didn't think of it. He strongly favors the concept of helping legal aliens, he said, and pointed out that most Alaskans or their families were aliens at one time. He stated his opposition to illegal immigration, but said he supports helping to create productive citizens of the United States. He asked if Representative Weyhrauch had considered faith-based help for legal aliens. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH replied no, but he'd thought the idea could be presented to the lieutenant governor's office, which is championing that initiative. He added that he sees this as an executive branch policy area "coming down," rather than a legislative policy "going up." REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG asked if the State of Alaska should be spending money to provide assistance to nonresidents. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH said he thought it depended on what stage the person was at in the process of becoming a resident and whether the person was trying to be a wage-earning member in the state's workforce. Number 0664 REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG remarked that the legislature in the past spent considerable time ensuring that Alaskans received employment opportunities. He asked if the bill could be modified to say services would only be provided to legal resident aliens of Alaska. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH replied that he thought it only took 30 days to become a legal resident of the state. He surmised that this change to the bill could be made, but said he didn't think it would have much impact due to the short amount of time involved in becoming a resident. REPRESENTATIVE CRAWFORD remarked that he thought HB 379 was a fine idea and that he appreciated the reference in the bill to labor unions. He read from the bill, which stated in part: 1) provide employment information and referrals to services for legal aliens, including employment services, such as job placement services, and information about how labor unions, administrative agencies, and court actions may be used to deal with claims or charges of job discrimination, illegal termination of employment, sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions REPRESENTATIVE CRAWFORD pointed out that this could mean only going to the union after a problem has occurred, when people should also be directed to unions for employment. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH agreed and added that when English is someone's second language or there is no cultural knowledge of unions, he hopes word of mouth will direct people to the proposed office, which will list employment opportunities including unions, job service offices, and want ads. He added that often workers require an interpreter to navigate the system, and they could likely get this help in the office of citizenship assistance if the commissioner crafted the position description with this provision. Number 0939 REPRESENTATIVE CRAWFORD recounted his own experience with becoming an ironworker, "a real step up in my life." REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH shared his experience of joining a union but never being hired. REPRESENTATIVE DAHLSTROM asked if the commissioner of the Department of Labor & Workforce Development would determine the [pay] range and step for this position. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH replied that this hadn't been decided, and that the range and step were not defined in the bill. CHAIR ANDERSON noted that the fiscal note, page 2, requested the position as an Employment Security Analyst II, Range 17. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH replied, "That was the department's analysis. I kept it undefined in the bill." Number 1034 REPRESENTATIVE GUTTENBERG asked what happens to legal aliens who are discharged from employment. Do they automatically become illegal, he asked. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH replied that it depends on their status with [the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)], often determined on a case-by-case basis. REPRESENTATIVE GUTTENBERG mentioned giving these people opportunities, saying they want to be "mainstreamed," to have jobs, and to participate in the community and be a constructive part of society. He expressed the desire to give them a place and opportunity to feel comfortable dealing with the government and knowing that this place exists to redress [problems]. REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG asked if legal aliens could be residents of Alaska. REPRESENTATIVE WEYHRAUCH said he thought so. REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG asked if permanent fund dividends are paid to resident legal aliens of Alaska. [There was no definitive answer.] Number 1140 RAFAEL CASTANOS, Advisor, Filipino Community of Alaska, testified in support of HB 379. He said he had discussed this bill with then-Senator Kelly in 2001; unfortunately, it got "bogged down" because of funding. Mr. Castanos spoke of the immigration issues facing the Filipino community, since there is no immigration office in Juneau, even though it's the capital. For example, he'd been approached by immigrants when the government had directed that they be fingerprinted in Ketchikan or Anchorage. New immigrants earn $7 or $8 an hour and cannot afford to travel to Ketchikan or Anchorage. Although he'd tried to advocate for them, some flew to Ketchikan or Anchorage to comply with the requirement. However, after two months they again received letters from immigration saying, "We cannot see your fingerprints." He pointed out that the travel money paid out to comply was nonrefundable. MR. CASTANOS said Filipinos are shy by nature and wouldn't contact their legislators about these problems. Immigration forms are complicated; if an immigrant approaches an immigration official to get assistance in filling out a form to petition for entry of a relative into this country, he said, the official will not help but directs the immigrant to contact an immigration lawyer, which costs a prohibitive $5,000 to $6,000. MR. CASTANOS reported that he'd done research looking for a comparable organization but, surprisingly, found none. He sees Alaska serving as a model for a citizenship-assistance office that would help immigrants navigate the legal system and solve problems on their way to becoming citizens. He noted that the idea for the original bill was supported by Catholic Social Services of Anchorage, which advocates for illegal aliens. He explained that he wanted the bill to focus on the larger immigrant population of legal aliens. He felt the Filipino community would be doing the state a favor by helping the government solve immigration problems. Number 1437 CHRISTINA SUMINGUIT testified that she supported HB 379 and agreed with the testimony of Mr. Castanos. Number 1477 CONSESA CABRIGAS testified in support of HB 379 and related that she is a recent immigrant, having arrived in Juneau last December, and is very happy to be here. Number 1515 ANDREE McLEOD, Anchorage, testified against HB 379. She explained that part of the American dream is interfacing with government, and it is problematic. There are already agencies in existence that deal with problems, such as the Human Rights Commission, the INS, and the Office of the Ombudsman. She opined that the policy embodied in HB 379 was discriminatory, based on national origin. She applauded the intent of recognizing the rich history of immigration in Alaska, but did not feel that this should be done at public expense. MS. McLEOD further stated that it is the responsibility of the sponsor to bridge the transition for individual immigrants. She said immigrants must not and should not be treated as victims of circumstance. She remarked, "They've already shown a strong sense of responsibility by taking the steps necessary to leave their homeland. And it's that responsibility that needs to be encouraged, instead of enabling a system allowing people to make excuses." Ms. McLeod suggested that this is a federal problem and that scarce state resources shouldn't be spent on this issue. She concluded by sharing that her family immigrated to this country, had a sponsor who was an uncle, and never felt like victims. Number 1655 CHAIR ANDERSON, upon determining that no one else wished to testify, closed public testimony. Number 1620 REPRESENTATIVE LYNN moved to report HB 379 out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying fiscal notes. REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG objected. He said if the state can find $112,000 for employment opportunities, it might be better spent in rural Alaska, where there are hard-core unemployment problems. He commented that there was merit to the bill, but he was unsure whether the state could afford it. REPRESENTATIVE ROKEBERG removed his objection. CHAIR ANDERSON expressed support and noted his plan to cosponsor HB 379, since he knows of immigrant constituents in his East Anchorage district. Number 1665 CHAIR ANDERSON, hearing no other objection, announced that HB 379 was reported from the House Labor and Commerce Standing Committee.