When he was 10, Leo Morales and his three siblings illegally crossed the border from Mexico to the United States, where his parents were already legally living and working. Unable to speak a word of English when he arrived, Morales spent six months picking strawberries in Oregon before moving to Idaho. Now 27, Morales is a U.S. citizen who works for Idaho Community Action Network (ICAN) as a community organizer on immigrants' rights issues by initiating dialogue between immigrant communities and local organizations and legislators.
BW: When you talk about working on immigrants' rights, does that include illegal immigrants?
Our organization works on comprehensive immigration reform. For example, our current laws only allow about 5,000 visas [per year] for "unskilled workers." Even the state of Idaho wouldn't be close to meeting the demand based on the visas we have. There are inadequate visas for workers while employers here continue to hire undocumented workers because they are good laborers. If a mother or father is here in the community [legally] and they want to get their child from Mexico, it takes them about 12 years to actually reunify. That's why when it comes to families, many families would rather break the law and have their family together. That's why we're pushing for comprehensive reform.
What impact do immigrants--legal and illegal--have on Idaho economically and socially?
Latino immigrants have historically been an integral part of Idaho primarily because Idaho is an agricultural state. I think immigrant workers, whether legal or not, have been a very vital part of Idaho's success.
So much of Idaho's focus on immigrants revolves around our Hispanic immigrant population. What other ethnic groups do you strive to connect with and lobby for?
The refugee community here is very diverse, and when we work on immigration reform, the details of that legislation would also impact [refugees] as well, particularly when it comes to the due process and civil liberties changes that the federal government is trying to make.
Anti-immigrant candidate Robert Vasquez finished second the recent Republican primary for Congress. What do you think that says about the support that organizations like ICAN have here in Idaho?
That particular race is an indication of where the country is at around the issue of immigration. But I would also say that there's been a lack of in-depth coverage of what the actual problem is with regard to the system itself. For example, not many Idahoans or Americans know the details of the broken immigration system. I would say that once that information is explained, that many Americans would say, "Immigrants that are here are hard working people. They have the same aspirations we do. They're looking for a better future for their families and it's only fair to be able to grant them that opportunity."
Is the solution to illegal immigration a wall on the United States-Mexico border?
Historically, we have seen walls go up and they have not worked. A wall only divides, and great leaders and great nations do not divide, but rather unite, and I think that's what we should be doing.
What's the most pressing issue for Idaho's refugee and immigrant populations?
The political landscape, and how immigrants are viewed and portrayed. I think we continue to be a country of immigrants and we will continue to be in the future and that's part of our foundation. The problem is we have outdated laws that ultimately force immigrants to hide, and it forces a division within our communities.