Voters in this 51,000-population suburb of Seattle appear to have settled a bitter yearlong fight about immigration in the most dramatic way possible: By electing the first two Latinos ever to serve on the City Council.
The seeds of Burien’s bitter year were planted not in Burien, but oddly enough in the next town over, SeaTac.
When news broke in the middle of America’s supercharged presidential campaign that a SeaTac city manager had sought to make a “tactical map” of where local Muslims lived, some in next-door Burien said: not in our town.
A few city leaders realized they had residents who no longer felt safe in their own city.
“We felt we had to act,” says Nancy Tosta, a Burien City Council member. “To let them know Burien was their home, too.”
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So shortly after Donald Trump’s election, the Burien council began debating a sanctuary-city ordinance. It said city employees, including police, couldn’t ask residents about their immigration status, or their religious beliefs, when delivering services.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
What followed was nine months of angry meetings that sometimes devolved into slurs. An outside anti-immigrant group spread incendiary mailers. Neighbors on both sides called each other names on social media. It all culminated in an unusual election campaign pitting one slate of four pro-immigration candidates against a more conservative group that came complete with the Trump-like nickname of “Burien Proud, Burien First.”
“It was like the civility we’ve always had in Burien was a thin veneer that got ripped away by Trump’s election,” Tosta says.
Last January, at the Burien Safeway, Jimmy Matta walked straight into it. A 41-year-old construction supervisor born in America to undocumented Guatemalan farmworkers, Matta was picking up some groceries when a white man confronted him.
“Your president is gone. Now you’re going back home,“ the man said.
“I was stunned, for weeks,” Matta told me over coffee across from City Hall. “I mean, I was born here. I heard everything Trump said during the campaign. But it seemed like that was all out there somewhere else, not in Burien.”
Over the next month or so, Matta stewed. The sanctuary-city fight blew up at City Hall, passing by one vote but then prompting a protracted repeal effort. He noticed his Latino friends and neighbors, who now account for 24 percent of the population in a city of 51,000, retreating warily into a shell.
“We were all waiting around for somebody to step up who might represent us,” Matta says. “Then suddenly I thought — why not me?”
Matta decided to run for City Council in March. He specifically chose to challenge an incumbent, Debi Wagner, who had voted against the sanctuary-city ordinance. She would later donate to Respect Washington, the outside group trying to repeal the ordinance. In an echo of the original SeaTac map proposal, Respect Washington sent out a map listing the supposed Burien addresses of undocumented people who had committed crimes.
There were other issues in the campaign, such as homelessness. But Matta says it was like a Trumpian spell had been cast on the town. He was doorbelling one day with his 14-year-old daughter, Maya, when he asked an elderly woman: “What changes would you like to see in Burien?” He figured she would say more sidewalks or something. Her answer: “I’d like to get these Mexicans out of here and teach them some English.”
“I felt so bad my daughter heard that,” Matta says. “But she said ‘It’s OK, Dad. America is having a midlife crisis.’ ”
Leave it to the 14-year-old to peg the truth. Maybe we’re feeling some luster fading. So we can’t decide: Do we stay open to the world, or close ourselves off? Should we keep trying to be a melting pot, as complicated as that is? Or build up walls?
It all played out in a municipal election, typically the stuff of parks and potholes.
“’We’re Podunk Burien,” says Tosta, the council member. “People here recall when we were chicken farms and tin shops. But suddenly we had an outside right-wing group in here, nationally funded. Plus on the left we had Dow Constantine campaigning, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the state Democrats setting up a phone bank. It turned into a big deal.”
More extraordinary is how voters responded. Votes are still being counted, but it looks as if the entire pro-immigration slate will win. That includes Matta and Pedro Olguin, a Mexican-American labor organizer. They would be the first Latinos ever elected in Burien.
So instead of repealing the sanctuary-city ordinance, Burien is firing the incumbent and replacing her with the son of undocumented migrant-farm workers.
Outside City Hall, I channel Joe Biden. No matter how Podunk Burien may be, I tell Matta, your election is a “big effing deal.”
He tears up a little. He talks about his parents, who raised him “homeless without me knowing I was homeless.”
“I’m an ‘anchor baby,’ ” he says, using air quotes to mock the right-wing term for a child born in the U.S. to parents who came illegally. “Now I’m going to be a city councilman. It’s all because of the open-mindedness of the people in this town. That’s the immigrant dream, right? The American dream. How great is that?”
Great enough to think there’s some hope for this troubled country of ours.