Most of us can trace our roots to immigration

The discussion about immigration has focused myopically on illegal immigrants from Mexico and other countries in Central America. Arizona now compels police to demand papers of anyone they “suspect” may be undocumented. Ethnic studies are banned from Arizona’s high schools.

There is an irony in this Hispanic bashing. Arizona was once part of Mexico, along with California, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. Santa Fe, N.M., was founded by the Spanish in 1608. San Francisco was established by the Spanish Franciscan Junipero Serra. When the United States won the Mexican-American War in 1848, it not only won land, it took over a mosaic of Native American and Mexican cultures. It’s all part of our history.

The anti-immigrant backlash isn’t just fed by Southwestern conservatives. When our president insures that illegal immigrants are walled off from the benefits of health care reform, we know that they have become scapegoats of the great recession. And yet, these are the people hired by employers to pick our fruit and dig our ditches. These illegal immigrants make up 3.5 percent of this state’s workforce, or 120,000 workers.

Over the past decade about half a million people moved into our state. About one-third of them are immigrants from other countries and two-thirds are migrants, people who move here from other states. I count myself as a migrant, having come from Rhode Island in 1983. We migrants and immigrants make up more than half of the state’s population.

About 800,000 immigrants live in our state, one out of every eight residents. Two-fifths of these immigrants have already become naturalized citizens. Almost one out of every seven workers is an immigrant. Proportionally, immigrants are working more than the native-born in Washington.

Why do people move to our state? I did because my wife got a good job here. That happens to be the reason most people come here, whether it is high tech employment at Microsoft or migrant labor in the Skagit Valley. For many thousands of people, our state is a beacon for opportunity to work and earn a better quality of life.

Another reason people immigrate into our state is to escape political repression.

Last fall my organization brought in a student intern, Chio Saeteurn, from the University of Washington masters in social work program. She has been balancing working three days a week with a full-time course load, while being a single mom. A couple weeks ago she sent me the photo at upper right.

That’s her, the little girl in front. The photo was taken in a refugee camp in Thailand. Saeteurn is a member of the Mien people, whose homeland is in Laos. The Mien people were recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War. When U.S. forces withdrew in 1973, the Mien were left to fend for themselves. Many were killed, and thousands fled to Thailand.

In 1987, after 12 years in a refugee camp, Saeteurn’s family made it to the United States. Now she is about to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Washington. She is an immigrant. And she is an American.

When you think back to your own roots, whether that’s one generation or 10, almost all of us are immigrants. Our country is built on the sweat and labor of immigrants, some forced here, some longing to get here, joining those already here, and all of us are Americans.

John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute ( ). His e-mail address is

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