Commentary: We've made good progress, but Washington is crippling itself by putting off state-level reforms.
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.
Still, we lack a proactive and comprehensive plan that would address the needs and harness the opportunities of immigrant communities across the state. It is notable that, in the wake of the raging national discussion on the political imperative of changing demographics, there has been little substantial discussion in Washington state on the implications for our future.
Chris Vance gave a nod to shifting demographics in his recent Crosscut piece, where he mentioned the GOP’s early forays into changing to meet the needs of a “changing America” and the subsequent derailing of that by 9-11 and the Tea Party. I have seen no official (or unofficial) mention of the changing demographics by the state’s Democratic Party as yet.
It’s important to note that, even though we haven’t had a proactive and specific state immigrant agenda, several top elected officials in the state legislature have risen to take important stands on critical issues. Because of them and strong community advocacy, Washington has some invested in essential policies that put us out front nationally. These include supporting health care for all children, farm-worker housing, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, an integrated English and job training program (called I-BEST), two separate naturalization programs that assist immigrants in obtaining citizenship and drivers licenses for all Washington residents.
In the recent Governor’s race, then-candidate Inslee, after meeting with immigrant groups across the state, said he would maintain Washington’s policy of requiring only proof of residence, not immigration status, in order to get a drivers license (McKenna opposed it). Inslee also endorsed the need for a state voting rights act that would allow for fairer and increased political participation of minority candidates — and by extension, of minority voters. These were both important nods to the growing constituency of immigrant voters and voters of color.
Yes, there has been progress, and yes, Washington has done some good things for immigrants. But for an innovative and border state with the kind of immigrant population we have, we are behind the times. The state is missing opportunities to capitalize on a vibrant depth of experience and opportunity that arises from engaging with immigrants and designing policies that serve their needs and take advantage of their skills. Immigrants in Washington, like elsewhere, are continuing to grow in numbers and it’s past time for us to put together a proactive agenda that speaks to these diverse communities.
While “immigrant issues” have come to mean federal immigration reform to many, the lack of comprehensive immigration reform and the growth of immigrants that reside in states across the country have meant that states have taken on an increasingly important role in what we now call immigrant integration.
If immigration reform is about who gets to be here and how, immigrant integration is about how we do the nitty-gritty work of actually engaging and integrating the immigrants who are already here as our neighbors, friends and co-workers into the everyday life and economy of our communities, meeting their needs and supporting them to give their fullest to our state.
Nationally, states like Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey have been on the forefront of creating comprehensive immigrant integration agendas. Washington was on the right track when, in 2008, Governor Chris Gregoire established a New Americans Policy Council that worked for a year to provide a Year One report that contained a thoughtful set of recommendations. Unfortunately, in the midst of a push to eliminate a number of commissions, Gregoire did not continue the Council for a second year. The recommendations are collecting dust on office shelves somewhere.
Now, here we are in 2013, with a new Governor and a new State Legislature. Consider this a wake-up call. Here’s what the alarm bells are saying.
We’ve got a very substantial immigrant population that votes and helps drive Washington’s economy. Here are a few statistics:
If you’ve ever taken a cab or shopped at our ethnic groceries or stepped into a high-tech start-up, you’ve seen immigrant entrepreneurship in action. If you’ve eaten apples or cherries or tomatoes, you’ve benefited from immigrant labor. If you’ve enjoyed ethnic restaurants or the Festal cultural celebrations, you’ve relished our cultural diversity — which also helps our tourism industry.
So, yes, while the 2012 election might signal this is about politics and growing political power, it’s also about what’s good and necessary for Washington and every single one of us.
Governor Inslee and this new state legislature have a real opportunity to build our state’s future. It’s time to recognize and engage with this rapidly growing demographic of immigrant residents and voters in a new and powerful way. In the next part of this two-part article, I’ll get specific on the elements of a specific immigrant integration agenda for Washington.
In the meantime, I still live in Seattle’s south end and every time I see one of those 98118 stickers that signify our tremendous diversity, I am proud.