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Originally published Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Report disputes immigrants' drain on state and local economies

OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy group, on Wednesday released a report that for the first time examines the economic contributions of Washington's estimated 778,501 foreign-born residents — legal and illegal.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A new report by the state's largest immigrant advocacy group attempts to silence some of the clamor — amplified in this worsening economy — that immigrants are a drain on the economy.

The 51-page report, called Building Washington's Future, outlines the economic contributions of the state's estimated 778,501 foreign-born residents — legal and illegal.

Released Wednesday by OneAmerica, the report looks at the history of immigration in Washington and examines the makeup, role and contributions of the state's immigrant work force. The report also makes recommendations about how the state can more effectively integrate them into the economy.

Among its findings:

• Immigrant-headed households, which represent 12.5 percent of all households in Washington, accounted for 13.2 percent of all taxes paid in 2007 — nearly $1.5 billion.

• Except for Latinos, the report found that homes owned by members of immigrant groups in 2007 had a median home value above $300,000 — higher than the median for the state's U.S.-born homeowners.

• Immigrant workers comprise 14.3 percent of Washington's labor force.

• Illegal immigrants, while representing only 5 percent of the work force, account for more than one-third of the state's construction workers and about one-fifth of all hotel maids, painters and private home help.

Much of the report's data are based on census findings from at least two years ago and in some cases cannot reflect the status of the population in the current recession.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, said the economy has left immigrants, like many native-born residents, struggling to make ends meet. "History shows us that in a down economy, anti-immigrant sentiment grows," she said. "But what you often miss in the too-often polarized debate is the reality underlying that debate — that we need every person in this economy to restimulate our state growth."

Numerous national studies have attempted to gauge the cost of immigration — primarily illegal immigration — focusing primarily on areas of education, health care and incarceration. A 2006 report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors controlled immigration, estimates the state's projected cost of illegal immigration next year will exceed $1 billion.

Last year, for example, the state Department of Social and Health Services spent $165 million on health-care programs that benefit illegal immigrants and their children. It spent an additional $26 million for health-care programs that benefit that population plus U.S. citizens.

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In seeking to debunk claims that immigrants are an economic drain on the state and local governments, the OneAmerica report notes that immigrants use public assistance at rates that are the same or lower than native-born households.

At the same time, though, the report's own statistics show that immigrants have slightly higher rates of cash assistance and food-stamps use.

The report says the state could further help immigrants integrate by providing language services, entrepreneurial help and naturalization assistance and pushing the federal government for immigration reform.

Jayapal acknowledged that a tight budget makes it hard for the state to do that, but immigration reform efforts can be part of a larger strategy for emerging from this recession.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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