Washington governor’s order to protect immigrants will also save state’s economy

Immigrants make up 17 percent of the state’s workforce. If Washington’s undocumented workers were deported, nearly $14.5 billion in economic activity could be lost.

Image credit: RonBailey/iStock

On Feb. 23, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 17-01. The order came just three days after the Department of Homeland Security released a memorandum implementing President Trump’s executive order to expedite deportations. Inslee’s order clarifies what data state agencies are allowed to collect about religion and immigration status and mandates that state agencies and law enforcement not assist the federal government with civil immigration law enforcement (the state will still assist with criminal immigration law enforcement).

“This executive order makes clear that Washington will not be a willing participant in promoting or carrying out mean-spirited policies that break up families and compromise our national security and, importantly, our community safety,” Inslee said at a press conference announcing his order.

Inslee’s executive order comes on the heels of several bills introduced by Democrats in the state Legislature in February that address data collection and disclosure, discrimination, and the role of state agencies and law enforcement in federal immigration enforcement. Inslee and his colleagues argue that protecting documented and undocumented immigrants is not simply a moral action. They say that doing so is critical for the stability and success of Washington’s economy because immigrants account for a significant portion of the state’s workforce.

None of the bills made it out of their respective committees in the House or Senate before a key calendar cut off. As such, the bills are effectively dead. But the details of the proposed legislation illustrate what state laws might do to stem deportation and why it makes good economic sense to do so. As federal action around immigration continues to evolve at a mile a minute, state-level legal action may prove to be an important tool for advocates and activists opposing Trump’s immigration agenda.

The economic case for protecting immigrants in Washington

Preceding Inslee’s executive order were several bills aimed at protecting Washington immigrants from the federal government. Senator Guy Palumbo sponsored a bill to limit disclosure of information about religious affiliation. Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self sponsored a bill to address discrimination based on citizenship and immigration status.

Senator Lisa Wellman’s bill – called the Keep Washington Working Act – would have limited state agencies’ data collection of immigrants and barred state and local law enforcement from assisting federal immigration enforcement. Proponents of Wellman’s bill argued that losing immigrants would devastate the Washington economy.

“I’m a business woman,” Wellman said at a Feb. 16 Senate committee hearing about the bill. “I know personally that immigrants play a vital role in this state’s economy. … If we’re going to keep Washington’s economy thriving, we must provide a sense of security for all of our workers.”

One in 7 Washington residents is an immigrant, according to the American Immigration Council. In 2013, immigrants made up 17 percent of the state’s workforce. A 2009 report from immigrant rights nonprofit One America found that immigrant families contributed $1.5 billion in tax revenue to the state in 2007, accounting for 13.2 percent of all taxes paid that year. If Washington’s undocumented workers were deported, the state would lose nearly $14.5 billion in economic activity, according to a 2008 report from financial analysts The Perryman Group.

There are immigrants in every level of Washington’s economy, from laborers to tech workers to business owners and entrepreneurs. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing – which contributed a collective $6.8 billion to the state’s 2015 GDP – would take a particularly big hit without an immigrant workforce; immigrant workers (primarily from Latin America) account for 62.5 percent of workers in those industries in the state, according to the One America report.

In the Senate hearing, Wellman told a story about Microsoft and Amazon representatives relating their concerns about an immigration crackdown. According to her, 33 percent of Microsoft employees in Washington are on work visas, and 75 of them were from countries listed on Trump’s travel ban.

“Hearing that Microsoft is considering moving these employees to Canada and expanding their footprint there because of a potentially hostile work environment in Washington was deeply troubling. These are high-paying tax professionals that we’re going to lose if we don’t support them,” Wellman said.

Legal protection for immigrants in Washington

The Keep Washington Working Act would have mandated that no state agency, including law enforcement, could assist federal immigration enforcement efforts or collect and share data about immigration status, religious affiliation, or citizenship.

Elisabeth Smith, the ACLU of Washington’s legislative director, says that states’ legal power rests in their ability to prohibit data collection in the first place. The ACLU of Washington supported Wellman’s bill. “It is an established fact that the federal government cannot compel state workers to gather information for them,” she said. “But once information has been gathered and is retained, the [federal] government can seek access to that information.”

“Enforcement depends on access to information to some extent,” Smith added. “If a state decides not to provide that information … that job for federal immigration enforcement is more difficult potentially.”

The Keep Washington Working Act would have helped create a friendlier environment for immigrant residents to work and participate in the state economy, said Maru Mora Villapando, of Latino Advocacy. The bill would have had an “immense [positive] impact,” Villalpando said. “[Immigrants] are so afraid. They’re not leaving home, not going to health care appointments, not going to the police. If people don’t go out and consume, the economy collapses. It’s as simple as that.”

Executive action in Washington state

Keep Washington Working Act’s influence on Inslee’s executive order is clear. The order highlights the contributions of immigrants to Washington’s workforce, economy, and tax revenue (as well as their cultural and social impact). It also uses language similar to the bills of Wellman, Ortiz-Self, and Palumbo to set guidelines for state agencies around data collection and immigration enforcement.

At the Feb. 23 press conference, Nick Brown, Inslee’s general counsel, explained that the order is meant to clarify the state’s existing policies.

“It doesn’t dramatically change existing state law or polices,” he said. “We want to make sure state agencies are acting in accordance with the law and not responding to these damaging changes we’ve seen from the federal government.”

State law and policy can only do so much as a bulwark against federal immigration enforcement. But Villalpando said it’s important that the state do what it can.

“ICE can do whatever they want. The point here is this country still has laws. That has been proven again and again. States have independence and are autonomous. … If the political climate is calling for mass deportation, raids, [and the] exclusion of immigrants, the state should be able to enact policy [to] make sure federal policy doesn’t hurt us.”

As Villalpando said, and the recent spate of ICE raids around the country have shown, Trump’s immigration action will impact immigrant communities regardless of state opposition. Still, some Washington Democrats say they have an economic and moral obligation to fight back.

Pointing to the recent 75th anniversary of the Japanese-American internment, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, one of the Keep Washington Working Act’s co-sponsors, said, “Fear and racism and the idea of national security can overcome our federal government’s commitment to the Constitution and human rights. … It is in our state’s best interest both for our residents and our economy that we limit ourselves as much as possible from participating in the wrong side of history.”

*Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said that “33 percent of Microsoft employees in the United States are on work visas.” In fact, 33 percent of Microsoft employees in Washington are on work visas. This piece has been edited to correct this error.


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