Opinion

Empathy for immigrants in Federal Way | Andy Hobbs

As Federal Way grows, so will scrutiny over Korean immigration.

Earlier this month, a handful of Federal Way officials and leaders visited South Korea, armed with a sales pitch for Korean investors. One tool in their arsenal is the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which grants green cards to foreigners (and their families) who pump $1 million into Federal Way’s economy.

Also, a proposed 45-story condominium tower in downtown Federal Way is being marketed to foreign investors, including Koreans.

This aggressive courting of foreign dollars leaves some local residents feeling uneasy, even threatened, by the potential influx of Koreans in Federal Way.

Immigration made America what it is today, but today’s Americans remain leery of welcoming even legal newcomers, especially if there’s a language barrier. It all stems from a fear of the unknown.

An estimated 9,000 to 10,000 Koreans call Federal Way home. Many are first-generation immigrants who rely on native customs and culture to adapt in a new nation — just like the millions of Europeans who passed through Ellis Island more than 100 years ago.

The Statue of Liberty bears a poem that reads “give me your tired, your poor.” That said, one could argue that Korean immigrants are neither tired nor poor like the Irish settler stereotype of the 1800s.

First-generation immigrants, whether from Asia or Europe, will seek like-minded people for both business and social relationships. First-generation immigrants cannot seamlessly assimilate into mainstream American culture overnight, but that doesn’t mean they outright reject American culture. They still need to conquer the learning curve of their new surroundings.

Consider the U.S. military bases in foreign nations such as South Korea. Despite location on foreign soil, the bases resemble life in America, with Western architecture and English speakers.

Unlike those Americans temporarily living abroad, first-generation immigrants typically intend to stay. But just like those Americans, first-generation immigrants naturally flock to the familiar and establish a comfort zone.

While there is no Korean military base in Federal Way, the “comfort zone” created by first-generation Korean immigrants makes some citizens uncomfortable. Humans naturally fear what we don’t understand. We fear what cannot be controlled, and we distrust what we fear. That doesn’t mean Federal Way residents fear Koreans or other immigrants, but the language and cultural barriers tend to foster cynicism instead of camaraderie.

Language barriers prevent a solid connection between the Korean-speaking population and the English-speaking population. Their mutual admiration for the American way of life ironically becomes lost in translation on American soil. Whereas some Americans may view the Korean-speaking community as living against the grain and rejecting society, those same first-generation Koreans — or any other immigrants, for that matter — see their community as a trusty haven.

Americans owe legal immigrants not so much sympathy, but empathy, for to be an American citizen, your ancestors had to start somewhere.

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