By Pramila Jayapal and Renee Radcliff Sinclair

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 recent report released by OneAmerica, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing democracy and justice, clearly lays out the contributions of immigrants to Washington's economy.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Finally, our state 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.
Jayapal, is executive director of OneAmerica (formerly Hate Free Zone). Sinclair is executive director of Congressional and Public Affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 4/09