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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Moving beyond legal and illegal

It was tough last week to be Hispanic.

Like some other ethnic groups navigating racially-obsessed America, people of Hispanic descent try to fly below the radar. They quietly work, raise families and obey the rules.

Then something blows their cover. In the time it takes a stereotype to build — surprisingly not long — they go from Hispanic-American to Latino to Mexican to illegal immigrant to public scourge.

It is the painful ride I imagine many endured, most recently after the Pew Hispanic Center's national study showed illegal immigration rose 8 percent last year to about 12 million. Government efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration, the Hispanic Center says, aren't working.

It is a fair point. Blame can be cast widely, from uneven border funding and enforcement to the unrealistic way we view the most visible of illegal immigrants — those from Latin America. But now Congress is considering its first major immigration legislation in a long time. Whatever lawmakers decide — whether to erect a wall la the Palestinian territories or offer a targeted amnesty — America's xenophobic view of Spanish-speaking immigrants ought to be overhauled.

Of building a wall around America to keep out illegal immigrants, Mike Sotelo, a business executive and president of Washington state's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is unconvinced.

"What, they think we don't know how to climb walls?" he jokes.

On a serious note, Sotelo sees the hoopla surrounding the issue of immigration as a key reason for the chamber's heightened visibility. Sotelo and several members of the chamber, including retired Mariners great Edgar Martinez, recently visited The Seattle Times Editorial Board to tout two new developments: a Latino-owned bank in South King County and higher visibility of Hispanic economic progress. I was happy to see them. At a time when public debates over immigration can racially polarize, a more complete picture of Hispanics is critical.

The Hispanic population is the state's largest minority group at 528,000, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management. At the same time, the Hispanic Chamber's membership in this state has grown tenfold.

While the rest of America ponders the effect of immigration on fruit growers and the hotel and landscaping industries, Sotelo prefers to link the growth in population to the growth in Hispanic affluence. The debate on immigration is laced with concern about a growing underclass. But far too little attention is paid to the economic maturity of Hispanics.

According to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, Hispanic economic clout is growing at an annual rate of 8.2 percent, nearly twice the 4.9 percent rate for non-Hispanics.

Hispanic-American household incomes are up. In 2004, 56 percent of all Latino households had a total income of more than $35,000, and more than a third had household incomes between $45,000 and $150,000.

Demographics show Hispanic population growth driven by a high birthrate rather than illegal immigration. If the trend continues, U.S. Hispanics will be a group of primarily English, not Spanish, speakers. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 75 percent of Latino adults today either speak only English or are bilingual.

This is partly a generational distinction. Latinos who've been in America several generations are more likely to have traits indistinguishable from their non-Latino counterparts. Not so for newcomers to this country.

Therein lies the reason we ought to move toward an amnesty plan and fluid borders. We aren't just talking about satisfying America's gnawing need for unskilled, low-wage labor. We're talking about developing the next several generations of Americans.

The choices are simple. Deny them education and health care because of their illegal status and watch them grow disenfranchised and angry. Or accept them and watch the Sotelos and Martinezes multiply among us. Routes to legal immigration and citizenship that aren't punitive have worked for centuries for various ethnic groups. Their success is proven. Perhaps then Latinos can be seen beyond the narrow status of legal or illegal.

During the Hispanic Chamber's visit at The Times, Sotelo recounted an anecdote of being out in his Mercer Island neighborhood and being mistaken for a gardener. Mistakes happen but I am convinced the more we hear about successful, legal Hispanics, the less likely one would be to mistake a businessman for a day laborer.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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