Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part column. Check back Monday, Jan 14th for part two.
When I first moved to Washington state in 1990, I was one of about 322,000 immigrant (or foreign-born) residents. We were a meager 6.6 percent of the state’s population back then. Having lived only in Washington, DC, New York City and Chicago before moving to Seattle, I remember being stunned by both the natural beauty and the lack of racial and ethnic diversity.
I gravitated to living in the south end of Seattle, which even then had a richness of culture and community with African-Americans in the Central District and Asians in the International District. Both Seattle and King County were, of course, head and shoulders over the rest of the state where there were few immigrants, except in some places like Yakima where migrant farm labor drove the economy.
Fast-forward to current day. In 2011 immigrants comprised 909,000 residents, or 13 percent of the population. To think about it another way, our immigrant population is significantly larger in number than the entire population of the state of Alaska. One of the leading states for refugee resettlement and secondary migration, Washington has a foreign-born population that hails from all over the world. We are also unique in that our major industries include immigrant workers across the spectrum, from high-technology to agricultural to service sector.
Quick, tell me: What region do most of our immigrants come from? If you said Asia, you’d be right. While this is Latin America in many other parts of the country, 40 percent of our immigrants are from many different Asian countries, while 31 percent hail from Latin America, according to 2010 Census data. Another quick one: What are the top three countries of birth for Washington immigrants? Answer: Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam. And finally, what percent of kids in our state come from immigrant families? Answer: A very significant 25 percent.
And just in case you’ve heard the anti-immigrant claims that we are being flooded with undocumented immigrants, the reality is that 75 percent of our immigrant residents are here with legal status and just under 50 percent of our immigrants are eligible to vote (Again based on 2010 Census data).
Most importantly, whether documented or undocumented, voting or not, all immigrants play an essential role in our state’s economy and social fabric.
Washington’s dramatic immigrant growth in the past two decades (about 180 percent since 1990) matched similar huge shifts in other states that changed the course of the 2012 election and became the top story of the past two months. States like Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia went for Obama, in large part because of the political participation of immigrants — Latinos and Asians, primarily. Although these populations had been growing for some time, the GOP was asleep at the wheel, catering to a dwindling minority of white men and turning sharply to the right on federal and state immigration policies.
Here in Washington state, we have been slow to pay attention to the diversity of our growing immigrant population. In the fall of 2001, when I started what was then Hate Free Zone (later changed names to become OneAmerica), few people in the state legislature or even the Seattle City Council knew much about the Arab, Muslim or South Asian communities that were most deeply affected by post-9-11 violations of civil liberties and due process. The API community and Latino community (to a lesser extent) were more familiar, because of the advocacy of particularly effective leaders in those communities.
Seattle and King County legislators were certainly receptive to protecting the rights of these groups, and later to a push for immigration reform, but immigrants were still largely hidden from mainstream policies or politics, particularly at the state level.
Over the past ten years, political power and participation of immigrant groups across the state have grown, thanks to deep organizing efforts by numerous organizations. Immigrants are directly in front of legislators in Olympia much more often, with several immigrant lobby days representing different communities. The City of Seattle, after years of advocacy work, finally established a new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs just last year. And Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was probably the first to actively court a broad immigrant vote.
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