Immigrants help keep Washington's economy strong
Because of the too-often polarizing debate about immigration reform, the real economic contributions that immigrants make are often overlooked. In this guest column, an immigration advocate and a business advocate discuss a new Washington state-specific report that suggests helping immigrants better integrate into society helps everyone.
Special to The Times
The early experiences of Amalia Cudeiro, Bellevue School District's new school superintendent, mirror the experiences of many foreign-born residents in Washington and across the United States.
Born in Cuba, Cudeiro came to the United States as a child. Her father was an accountant, but because he didn't speak English, he was only able to find work as a dishwasher. Cudeiro gave back to her father — she earned a doctorate from Harvard, built a much-lauded career in education, and today is poised to become the first immigrant school superintendent in a city where one in four residents is foreign-born.
Cudeiro's journey and contributions may be viewed as a microcosm of immigrants across Washington state. A report released last week by OneAmerica, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing democracy and justice, clearly lays out the contributions of immigrants to Washington's economy and makes the case for why immigrant workers are indispensable in our state.
The report, "Building Washington's Future: Immigrant Contributions to Our State's Economy," provides the first report specific to our state that looks factually at taxes paid by foreign-born households, consumption patterns of foreign-born families, percentage of immigrants in a variety of industries, and state demographic changes. It also lays out core strategies for how Washington can make the most of these contributions to stay economically strong.
The contributions of immigrants to Washington's economy has brought together a perhaps unlikely coalition of immigrants, business owners, labor officials, academics and scientists who see immigrants as integral to keeping Washington state's economy strong. From our different vantage points, we see the reality underlying a debate that is wrongly polarized. That is, immigrant workers are essential to growing Washington's economy today as much as in the early 1900s.
In the early 1900s, Washington's foreign-born population soared over the national average, as a result of recruitment of immigrants by our state's governors, elected officials and businesses who sought to bring in cheap and hardworking labor to build the state's infrastructure. Today, 100 years later, Washington still depends on immigrant workers for agriculture, high-tech and research industries.
Immigrants now make up 14.3 percent of Washington's civilian work force, coming from many regions, spread across the state, and working in a variety of industries. And while immigrants may be perceived as living primarily west of the Cascades, the reality is that Chelan, Douglas, Yakima, Grant, Franklin and Adams counties in Central and Eastern Washington all have percentages of immigrants (compared with the total county population) that are higher than the national average.
So, while some may think immigrants and immigration are not issues affecting their districts, regions or industries, the report clearly shows almost every county in Washington needs to start thinking about the tremendous contributions of immigrants to their economy.
Consider these facts:
• The Office of Financial Management estimated that in 2007, Washington households with at least one foreign-born member contributed $1.48 billion in tax revenue, or 13 percent of the state's total tax revenue. Even low-income immigrant households earning less than $20,000 a year contributed a total of $50 million in tax revenue.
Washington's Asian and Hispanic buying power (accounting for $16 billion and $12 billion, respectively) accounted for approximately a fifth of the state's consumer market.
• Immigrants constitute significant percentages of the work force in a variety of industries, making up over 62 percent of farming, fishing and forestry workers; 19.5 percent of production, transportation and material moving workers; 19 percent of service workers.
• Immigrant households in Washington use public assistance at rates that are the same or lower than native-born households, with the exception of food stamps.
• Washington ranks eighth in a list of states that would suffer the highest per-capita losses if the undocumented work force — which constitutes about 5 percent of the total work force — were removed. Washington state could lose $14 billion to $46 billion in lost expenditures, and Washingtonians could lose $600 to $1,700 of personal income per capita.
• Washington's immigrant entrepreneurs contributed approximately $1.3 billion or 9.8 percent of total state business income and provided a significant number of jobs. In Washington, Asians and Hispanics own 5.7 percent and 2.2 percent of businesses, respectively.
• Some of the state's largest research and academic institutions and businesses rely on H1-B visa workers that range from high-tech scientists to professors.
Considering these economic influences, clearly Washington must invest in strategies that support the two-way integration of immigrants into our communities. Specifically, the report points to strategies that, even in a tough budget year, must stay funded if Washington is to stay strong.
Invest in English language services. English proficiency is related to the economic self-sufficiency of immigrants and their ability to contribute to the economy.
Invest in naturalization assistance. The report presents compelling evidence that citizenship leads to higher earnings and helps immigrants integrate into society. It also points out that Washington has more than 170,000 legal permanent residents eligible for citizenship, but in 2007, only 8.6 percent are naturalizing. Washington New Americans, a partnership between the state of Washington and OneAmerica, is an example of a program that is desperately needed to fill the gap in services.
Invest in immigrant entrepreneurs. These businesses pay clear dividends on their investment, with the jobs created and the revenue generated.
Finally, our state's leaders — the governor and the state Legislature — must boldly push the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Reform will fuel further economic contributions by immigrants and end a divisive and often polarizing debate that ignores the very real contributions of immigrants every day to our communities and our economy.
As the economic effects of the downturn are felt across the state, it is important for legislators and the public to remember that immigrants stand ready — as they always have — to build Washington's future, bringing creativity, hard work and entrepreneurship to the challenges ahead.
Pramila Jayapal, left, is executive director of OneAmerica (formerly Hate Free Zone). Renee Radcliff Sinclair is executive director of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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