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OIRA welcomes two new Washington State laws to assist immigrant residents and international medical graduates

Glenn Davis, Ready to Work Program and Policy Specialist, Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

Advocates join the governor in the ceremonial bill signing.

Throughout the 2019 state legislative session, the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs tracked two immigrant-related bills:

  1. SB 5846, which concerns the integration of international medical graduates into Washington’s health care delivery system.
  2. SB 5497 or the “Keep Washington Working Act (KWWA),” which establishes a statewide policy supporting Washington state’s economy and immigrants’ role in the workplace.

SB 5846 helps bridge healthcare gaps in underserved communities, while utilizing local immigrant brainpower

SB 5846 sought to solve two significant health care-related issues. First, Washington State has a surplus of international medical graduates who have attained their U.S credentials, but continue to encounter obstacles to enter into residency programs, the first big step before being able to practice. Second, across the state, a growing number of communities face a persistent lack of primary medical care providers in or near their residences. National projections foresee a shortage of 130,000 physicians, despite the availability of a large talent pool of thousands of highly qualified immigrant and refugee doctors that are unable to practice medicine due to systematic barriers and short-sighted policy.

The state legislature concluded that international medical graduates residing in our state could offer increased access to primary care for state residents if these qualified professionals could overcome current barriers to practice. With passage of SB 5846, lawmakers sought to dismantle these barriers by designing a new approach to increase the number of immigrants and refugees being accepted into residency programs.

This new legislation creates a multi-stakeholder work group to study barriers to practice and to make recommendations on how the state can implement an international medical graduate assistance program to assist international medical graduates integrate into the Washington health care delivery system. The work group is tasked with recommendations for:

  • Reducing barriers for international graduates to obtain residency positions including pre-residency training.
  • Determining the number of residency positions to be designated, the costs, locations, and medical specialties.
  • Finalizing recommendations for post-residency service requirements for graduates

The City of Seattle is in full support of this effort. According to OIRA’s analysis, a thoughtfully designed program for international medical graduates can make significant progress in breaking barriers and lowering inequities facing underemployed medical professionals on their career pathways. Such a program will also contribute to lower health disparities and inequities in underserved communities.

This new law arose from the work of international medical graduates and a coalition of organizations and individuals led by the Somali Health Board. And OIRA and the City of Seattle was in full support throughout the bill’s progress in the legislature.

Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law on Monday, May 13 at a ceremony in Olympia.

SB 5497 helps businesses enact strong worker protections and promotes public safety

This session was the third attempt at passing the Keep Washington Working Act or SB 5497. And the third time was indeed the charm. Washington State’s successful economy and low unemployment is due in large part to workers from a variety of industries. Much of this labor, especially farm work, while back-breaking and physically demanding, are necessary for this state’s communities to be successful.

But the Trump administration seeks to penalize hard-working immigrant workers based on outdated and antiquated immigration laws. He uses fear to divide us, and turn us against our neighbors, even though we are united in supporting our communities and building a strong economy both locally and across the U.S.

Together, people across the state recognized the need to protect our most vulnerable friends and neighbors from outdated immigration laws and enforcement through passage of the Keep Washington Working Act. KWWA specifically sought to:

  • Restrict state agencies from aiding immigration enforcement, including the Department of Licensing (DOL), the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), and the Washington State Patrol (WSP).
  • Prevent local police from enforcing immigration laws, unless they have a judicial warrant or subpoena.
  • Protect crime victims, and allow local police to focus on the community’s own public safety priorities.
  • Protect people from unwarranted immigration checks and immigration arrests by local safety officers.
  • Require the attorney general to create policies that protect public and private facilities from immigration enforcement, including schools, hospitals, courthouses, and shelters.
  • Prevent jails from holding anyone past the end of their sentence.
  • Create a workgroup comprised of labor, immigrant rights advocacy groups, business, and government agencies in a statewide effort to provide stability to the workforce in the agricultural sector.

And thanks to the hard work and dedication of immigration activists and organizers across the state, especially the coordinated efforts of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN),  KWWA successfully passed both houses on April 24, 2019. WAISN members joined the governor in his conference room on May 21 to celebrate the bill signing.

Advocates at the Capitol steps in Olympia.
Advocates in Olympia supporting passage of the Keep Washington Working Act.