— by Rep. Rick Larsen —
When I talk to people in Northwest Washington, I hear about a lot of different issues that matter to them. People want high quality education for their children, they want secure jobs and access to affordable health care, they want opportunities for their families. That is why one of my top goals in Congress is to build up opportunities by breaking down barriers. I am working to expand people’s ability to participate in our economy and our democracy.
My commitment to breaking down barriers extends across the many diverse communities that make up our home in the Pacific Northwest. To that end, I am working on legislation in Washington, D.C. that will build opportunity for our students, veterans and immigrants in Washington state.
First, America needs to be telling its young people we will invest in them. That means making sure students get the training they need to succeed in the workforce, including education in the high-demand fields of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.
I recently met with students across Northwest Washington who are building their knowledge in these areas. At Burlington-Edison High School, students showed me a robot they constructed that can move and stack items. Students from South Whidbey Island told me about their science project involving submarines they developed to compete in regional and international science fairs. And last fall I toured the future San Juan Island School District STEM facility with faculty and students who are all excited about the new learning opportunities the facility will provide.
These skills will help our students succeed in a globally competitive workforce. To expand access to STEM education, I introduced the Youth Access to American Jobs Act of 2015, a bill that connects students to STEM skills to prepare them for good-paying jobs in manufacturing. The bill creates a pathway that engages students in STEM-related fields from their junior year in high school through community college and into an apprenticeship.
I am also working to make sure that students with private education loans receive fair treatment from their lenders. As of 2011, about 90 percent of student loans through private companies had cosigners. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received numerous complaints that loan companies accelerated loans into default upon death or bankruptcy of a cosigner, often a parent or grandparent, even when students are making loan payments on time.
A bill I introduced, the Bereaved Borrowers’ Bill of Rights, is designed to protect grieving students and those facing family hardship from automatically defaulting on their private students loans. The bill also prohibits lenders from reporting an ‘auto-default’ as a result of cosigner death or bankruptcy to credit reporting companies and stops these companies from including this information on their reports.
Local universities, including Western Washington University, the University of Washington, and Washington State University, are supporting the bill.
Today’s students are juggling a lot of demands, from rising tuition costs to a highly competitive job market. My bill makes sure that unfair and harmful ‘auto-defaults’ are not on this list.
Second, we need to continue creating opportunities for the women and men who have served our country to be successful in civilian life. I have worked to ensure veterans have access to the health care they need after their service. But access to health care does not just mean having enough doctors. It also means making sure veterans can get to those appointments. That is why I introduced the Rural Veterans Travel Enhancement Act.
The program that pays Department of Veterans Affairs employees to drive veterans to medical appointments will expire at the end of this year. My bill would reauthorize the Veterans Transportation Service program and provide mileage reimbursement for combat veterans traveling to receive counseling and care from Veterans Centers like those in Everett and Bellingham. Local organizations like Community Action of Skagit County support the bill. I will keep working to break down travel barriers so veterans do not have to wonder how they will get to their doctors.
Finally, in this country made up of immigrants, we must do better in our treatment of those who come here seeking asylum, fleeing persecution, or looking for opportunities like jobs and a good education. We should have in place better protections for immigrants who are detained while they wait for their immigration hearings, such as access to adequate medical care and food.
That is why I am supporting efforts to make sure detention centers are accountable for treating immigrants fairly and humanely and to reduce unnecessary detention. The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act of 2015 would create stronger, enforceable federal oversight and standards for all immigration detention centers. The bill also supports the use of effective alternatives to detention and eliminates the costly and unnecessary requirement that the federal government constantly maintain 34,000 detention center slots. I also sent a letter with my colleagues to Secretary Johnson at the Department of Homeland Security calling for an end to the harmful practice of detaining mothers and children.
These are some of the ways I am working to break down barriers for people in the Pacific Northwest. Building opportunities for our neighbors to contribute makes our communities stronger and opens more doors for all of us.