The RV in Hugo Garcia's neighborhood still bears faint traces of spray paint. Someone tried to scrub it clean, but the words left behind a rust-colored stain: "FUCKING MEXICANS."
Garcia had to see the RV for himself to believe it—and when he did, he was shocked. He grew up in the Seattle suburb of Burien and speaks of his hometown with unabashed boosterism. Garcia's father worked long hours in the community's famed Mexican restaurant industry, a fact that swells his sense of civic pride. Hugo Garcia and his two brothers stayed in the area; one became an elementary school teacher, and the other two went to work for community development nonprofits.
"I want people to be aware: This is happening in a city 20 minutes from downtown Seattle," Garcia said.
Shortly after Trump's inauguration, some of Garcia's friends—people he goes to Sounders games with—stayed home because they were afraid of being picked up by immigration agents. Some were too afraid to go to the grocery store. Then Garcia heard a story from his brother, a fourth-grade teacher who sits with his students at lunch.
"One of his 9-year-old students told him, 'I'm not worried for me, but I'm worried they'll take my mom away,' Garcia remembered. "I'm having a hard time as a 37-year-old man going through this, but kids, I have no idea how it's impacting them psychologically."
He hadn't participated in local activism before this. But seeing the hateful graffiti on the RV and hearing stories about terrified children changed that. Garcia began to realize that the Burien he lived in—the one with more quinceañera shops per capita than Starbucks franchises—maybe wasn't the one he thought he knew.
Burien is a small city of 50,000 people sandwiched between Puget Sound and Sea-Tac International Airport. The median household income is $53,712, but the poverty rate is 18.2 percent. The area hosted white settlers in the mid-1800s, but only became formally incorporated in 1993, when communities living near the airport wanted a bigger say in its impacts on local residents. Ask any Burienite what comes to mind when they hear "old Burien," and they'll say "bedroom community," meaning an opportunity for Boeing workers or Seattle commuters to have a home with plenty of space in the burbs.
But for decades before the city's incorporation, Burien also drew immigrants from Cuautla, Mexico, who helped kick-start the entire region's Mexican restaurant industry. The high school—44 percent Latino—is one of the most diverse in the state. And for decades, the city has drawn immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere who have launched pupuserias and specialty bakeries.
As the city reflects the nation's shifting demographics, it has also become a tiny microcosm of national politics. Trump's nativist politics have emboldened local city council candidates who scapegoat undocumented immigrants in an imagined crime wave. At the same time, and for the first time, Latino Burienites are beginning to demand better political representation and are running for office.
The week before the spray paint incident, the Burien City Council passed an ordinance protecting undocumented residents from city employees asking about their immigration status and religious affiliation. Latino residents proposed the ordinance as a response to President Donald Trump's directive to deputize local police forces in a sweeping immigration crackdown, as well as his consideration of a database to keep track of Muslim citizens.
But the ordinance met resistance. It took two attempts to finally pass the council, and in its final form, the term "sanctuary" had been removed.
More recently, the council decided to undo its earlier ordinance by putting those same protections for undocumented residents and religious minorities to a vote on the November ballot. A petition from Seattle organization Respect Washington, which is primarily funded by an anti-immigrant group that publishes white-nationalist literature, gathered just enough signatures to push the repeal vote forward.
Burienites who want to get rid of protections for undocumented immigrants and religious minorities will also have the chance in November to elect local lawmakers who share their politics. A local group that calls itself "Burien Proud, Burien First" has organized a slate of white candidates who claim to be tough on crime. One of the most vocal among them is beauty salon owner Darla Green, a former failed candidate for city council who has gained popularity in her role as a crusader against progressive causes and a mythical "alt-left."
Before she became the face of Burien Proud, Burien First, Green made her name as an anti-panhandling activist. Green pushed for an ordinance in 2015 that explicitly criminalized "bodily hygiene or scent that is unreasonably offensive to others." (The Burien City Council, save for Council Member Lauren Berkowitz, voted to pass that ordinance, then later amended it.) That same year, Green ran for city council, but lost by a 189-vote margin. This year, Green made it through the primary against longtime incumbent Nancy Tosta with the majority of the vote.
Green recently went on a right-wing radio program to share the police report details of a brutal rape allegedly committed by a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in June. For proponents of the sanctuary city repeal effort, Trumpian fearmongering over immigrant crime has become a common tactic: Craig Keller, the organizer of the Respect Washington repeal petition and a former Republican congressional candidate, has also appeared in front of the Burien City Council to share grisly details of the same rape. Fox News quickly picked up the story and sent Bill O'Reilly protégé Jesse Watters to interview Keller and Latino city council candidate Pedro Olguin about the rape. Despite a total lack of evidence tying immigrants in Burien to increased crime, the rape became a reference point for "law and order" arguments. (In the same segment, Watters mispronounced "Burien" and interviewed tourists near the Statue of Liberty about whether immigrants should have to know English before they arrive.)
Shortly after Trump's inauguration and the passage of Burien's sanctuary ordinance, another Burien resident named David White took to a hyperlocal blog's Facebook page to suggest that the Burien City Council deserved to suffer violence at the hands of MS-13, the deadly international gang launched in Los Angeles. In another comment, White suggested that "we can hire the latin gangs" to visit Nancy Tosta, the incumbent city council member later challenged by Darla Green. A police officer visited White's home, saying he had a right to protest but should avoid threatening speech. White later posted video of the encounter online, claiming to be the victim of harassment.
Burienites fearful of Muslims and immigrants continue to find people who agree with them online. Two days after the Fourth of July, one resident posted on the "Take Back Burien" Facebook group about a rumor she heard that people waving ISIS flags marched in the Independence Day Parade. (No photos of the alleged incident surfaced; one of the people who reported seeing a group waving ISIS flags claimed he saw them the previous year.) And in early August, Burien Proud, Burien First users started linking the June rape to the city's sanctuary city ordinance. In that Facebook group, Burien City Council member Debi Wagner, who is currently running for reelection on the Burien First slate, claimed that she believed the alleged rapist was likely a repeat offender. "The viciousness of this crime leads me to believe this is not his first," she wrote. "Problem with the entire system is sanctuaries not only draw people of unknown character and background, they shelter them."
Fears of increased crime aren't based in reality. In Burien, felony crimes per capita have fluctuated over the last five years as the population has grown. The crime rate in 2016 was slightly lower than it was in 2012, and slightly higher than it was in 2015. "Crime goes up and down, as you can see from the statistics," King County sheriff John Urquhart, who does not support the effort to repeal Burien's sanctuary ordinance, said by e-mail.
It doesn't help that Burien is a news desert. Aside from the hyperlocal B-Town Blog, there aren't any full-time reporters at local newspapers covering the city beat. Mellow DeTray, a 10-year Burien resident, recently started a website (BurienCity.com) intended to give voters more information on their local candidates. DeTray also set out to find if she could corroborate Burien Proud, Burien First candidates' claims that crime was increasing. Instead, DeTray concluded that there was no crime epidemic after all.
"There's such division, and there's such false information and misunderstanding of what's really going on," DeTray said.
Respect Washington, the group behind Burien's anti-sanctuary drive, gets most of its funding from an organization in Michigan called US Inc.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) considers US Inc. an anti-immigrant hate group, taking note of racist literature printed in its flagship publication, The Social Contract.
This summer, The Social Contract ran a series of articles on immigrants, one of which unjustifiably claimed that Latino immigrants are genetically predisposed to drunk driving. The article called them "invaders" and suggested that, eventually, the purported problem would be fixed by natural selection.
KC McAlpin, the executive director of US Inc., defended the article by saying that its author cited research from the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School. (Neither of these sources concluded that racial genetics—a concept that, on its own, is challenged by scientists today—are to blame for drunk driving among Latinos.) As for the ties to white nationalism, "US Inc. is completely opposed to any system of immigration based on race or national origin," McAlpin wrote by e-mail.
According to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, US Inc. founder John Tanton is "without a doubt, a white nationalist." His organizations have been involved in efforts to repeal sanctuary city statutes in not only Burien, but also Spokane and in the state of Oregon. In Arizona and Tennessee, Tanton has funded efforts to pass and defend "English only" laws. He helped move forward the Prop 187 campaign in California in the 1990s, a ballot measure that attempted to prevent undocumented residents from attending public school or accessing health care, as well as HB 56 in Alabama, which would have encouraged police officers who suspected people of being immigrants to stop those people and ask about their immigration status.
"Most of the efforts that John Tanton has done on this front have been targeted at creating organizations, but he has at times put money behind grassroots efforts of various kinds," Beirich said. "Usually he gives money to an organization, and then that organization pursues different kinds of efforts to further whatever he thinks will keep America white."
Nevertheless, the repeal effort's white-nationalist ties don't appear to alarm the majority of Burien's city council.
When I asked each council member for comment on the funding of Respect Washington, only four of the seven council members responded. (Burien's mayor, also included on the city council, did not respond.) One declined to comment, two condemned hate speech, and one—a council member who actually signed the petition to put the repeal on the ballot—appeared to scoff at the SPLC's designation of Tanton, who has expressed support for eugenics, as a racist.
"What's your definition of a racist?" Council Member Debi Wagner wrote. "I see Trenton [sic] is described as a racist. Is that because he is against illegal immigration or is there something else?"
I sent Wagner a list of citations on Tanton, including a New York Times story that quoted one of Tanton's letters describing his belief in "a European-American majority," but I never heard back.
Respect Washington's Craig Keller, however, has praised Tanton's work as a "good and honest cause."
"Every public service organization such as Respect Washington should be so fortunate to receive financial support from this defender of truth and justice for all," Keller told the Spokesman Review newspaper.
Beirich of the SPLC told The Stranger that Tanton's political goals are set against legal immigration, too. "It's not about being against illegal immigration," she said. "It's about having a racist vision for America that excludes immigrants."
In 2013, a group of Dutch researchers decided to look into the electoral geography behind the rise of the hard-right nationalist Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV), or Party for Freedom, in the Netherlands. The PVV, which believes that Judeo-Christian theology should be the dominant belief system and that immigration from Muslim-majority countries should be stopped, has called for banning the Quran and closing all Dutch mosques. It started out as a minority in 2006, but by 2010, it had gained the third largest number of votes in the Netherlands' parliamentary system. In 2014, the PVV once again came in third for the Netherlands' delegation in the European Parliament election.
The Dutch researchers found that most of the support for the right-wing faction came from the suburbs. This was noteworthy, considering the fact that so little research existed on the middle class surrounding the cities. But the Dutch researchers concluded that voter demographics couldn't explain the phenomenon alone. Instead, they offered up a number of other explanations, one of them being that "nostalgia" could be used as a sort of defense mechanism against social and cultural change.
"As suburban environments are becoming more socially heterogeneous, concerns arise over crime and deviant behaviour, as well as the presence of unfamiliar immigrant groups," the researchers wrote. "In other words, rather than antiurbanism, suburban support can be seen as defending, or even recapturing, times past and spaces lost, in order to retain a level of social respectability previously achieved through suburban homeownership."
Mellow DeTray, the founder of BurienCity.com, describes the motivation for Burien's sanctuary city repeal in similar terms.
"It's like an us versus them—or a good old days—kind of thing," she said. "Like, 'Don't you want Burien to go back to what it used to be?'"
The numbers show that Burien is, indeed, changing. Since the city's incorporation in 1993, it's grown nearly 50 percent. Burien has also incorporated additional parts of King County since its conception, but voters rejected annexing White Center, a minority-majority city of 14,000. According to the 2010 Census, 40 percent of the Burien population is now nonwhite, with Latinos making up 25 percent of the overall population.
But as much as nostalgia may be factoring into the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Seattle suburbs, historical records show that the backward-looking idea of Burien as an ethnically homogenous bedroom community is mostly fiction.
In Our Burien, a collection of early Burien settlers' memories, letters, and newspaper clippings by author Esther Balzarini, documents show that early Burien settlers referred to themselves as "emigrants" who infringed on Native territory. The first settler noted in Our Burien was Mike Kelly, an immigrant from Ireland, and the city itself is named for Gottlieb Boorien, who moved to the area with his family from Germany. Esther Balzarini married the son of Louis Balzarini, an immigrant from Italy who additionally made up one of Burien's early founding families.
On a recent Tuesday night in downtown Burien, Hugo Garcia and another Burien activist named Roxana Pardo Garcia (no relation to Hugo Garcia) took me on a tour of their city. Roxana Pardo Garcia showed me where her immigrant father opened up a shop that sold Selena cassettes. Both Garcias point out that El Rinconsito, the first well-known taqueria in King County and now a major chain, opened up business in Burien in 1997. Down the street used to be a panaderia, or bakery, and in neighboring White Center, an El Salvadorian opened up the region's first pupuseria. Farmworkers, Roxana Pardo Garcia remembered, would travel all the way to the area just to eat there.
"People claim that we're not from Burien, when in fact a lot of our families have been here for years," Roxana Pardo Garcia said. Garcia grew up in Burien, graduated from Highline High School, and attended the University of Washington before coming back to Burien to work for the South King Council of Human Services and volunteer at Para Los Niños, an organization that serves local immigrant families.
"We're going through a growth spurt," Garcia continued. "A political one, an economic one, and a sociocultural one. And the people who have traditionally held power are starting to feel that growth spurt and they're thinking it's a negative thing because it'll displace their power."
That makes people afraid. But of what? Garcia doesn't know. Maybe they're afraid, Garcia said, that a growing Latino majority will treat white people the way white people have historically treated them.
It's true that candidates from Burien's Spanish-speaking communities are newly seeking political power. Political tensions in South King County have grown as a response to first-time candidates of color, said Stacia Jenkins, former Normandy Park City Council member and chair of the 33rd District Democrats.
"We have people running for office that in the past have not taken on the challenge of community leadership at this scale," Jenkins said. "And the way that threatens people would already be significant, but now the threat is characterized by these fears that are completely unfounded because of the national rhetoric."
Jenkins's district is unique in that it's one of the only minority-majority districts in Washington State. But the six city councils that make up that district are majority white, and always have been. This year, for the first time, Latino candidates like Jimmy Matta are running for city council to represent communities that have lived in South King County for generations.
Matta, a 41-year-old labor leader and co-owner of a general contracting firm who has lived in Burien for 20 years, said that before this year, he had never once considered going into politics. But like Hugo Garcia, his mind changed in early January. Matta had gone shopping at the local Safeway when a man confronted him and said, "That's right, your president's gone. You're going back home."
"It just hit me," Matta remembered. "I couldn't say anything."
The man who confronted Matta was asked to leave, and when Matta walked outside, he was surprised to see him get into the driver's seat of an expensive car. "I was shocked," he said. "And then I started hearing the rhetoric, 'We're going to make this city safe again.'"
Matta said he's running for office now to show the younger generation that people with brown skin can push back against that kind of rhetoric. "I'd like to be able to say, 'Hey, it's time for the black, the white, the Latino, the Asian voters to vote,'" Matta said. "To say, 'We're not going to stand for hatred in this country. We're not turning back.'"
Matta grew up as the son of farmworkers in a tiny Eastern Washington agricultural community. As a kid, he was used to getting called racial slurs like "burrito boy," "spic," and "beaner." Today, Matta says those words can't hurt him. But it's not his own safety he's worried about.
"I think what got me the most is that I came back and shared that story with my family," Matta said. "And it shakes me because I didn't think my kids would have to live through this."
Lupita Torrez, the executive director of local nonprofit Para Los Niños, said that at the beginning of the year, several of the families she worked with stopped showing up to her organization's programming.
"When Trump took his position as president, we had kids crying and we had families who didn't want to go outside because they were so afraid that immigration was going to take them," Torrez remembered.
Torrez witnessed the effects of increased immigration roundups up close. One of the families she worked with, she told me, had a father who was deported back to Mexico and killed himself after being separated from his family.
Slowly, within months of the chaos of the new presidency, Torrez said, Para Los Niños and other organizations began to win back trust from the immigrant communities they served. Attendance improved. But then the petition drive to repeal the city's protections for undocumented residents drew renewed scrutiny of immigrants.
Some people, out of fear of contact with immigration officials, are now choosing to not renew their food stamps. Torrez herself has lived in Burien for 20 years, and chose to raise her children here because the city was once so welcoming. But now things have gotten ugly.
"When people are terrorized, it's really hard to organize," Torrez said. "How can you organize when people cannot move from their house? And nobody can blame them. It's their lives, it's their family, it's everything."
For Hugo Garcia, the hardest part of what's going on in his hometown isn't being confronted with the overt racism. It's being confronted with ambivalence.
"I get a lot of people online who say, 'We support you.' But why aren't there more of us at a city council meeting?" Garcia asked. "To me, it feels like there's 15 of us when there should be thousands of us. Why isn't it as big a deal as it should be?"
Months before the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville, the RV wasn't the only hate crime that struck Burien. A week before the country elected Trump as its president, someone set fire to a Burien man's cars and wrote "Jews die" on the same Jewish family's garage.
But for Garcia, the hate crimes remain a small, ugly footnote in the history of his hometown. While we were driving around Burien in his car full of Sounders fan gear, most of Garcia's tour consisted of fond memories from his childhood here. When I asked him why he and his brothers have chosen to stay and invest in this place, Garcia paused: "Pride."