Grace Arroyo 

In 2006, more than 20 percent of Canyon County residents were identified as Hispanic, compared to just 6 percent in Ada County.

Caldwell resident Grace Arroyo knows what it's like to be part of that minority. Originally from Ecuador, the 39-year-old works as a Spanish translator and interpreter in Canyon County courtrooms and sees the faces of Idaho's undocumented workers every day. It's what inspired her to found Primera Llamada in 2005, a business that provides an abundance of services to the county's ballooning Hispanic population, often free of charge.

Arroyo spoke with BW about her take on Idaho's treatment of immigrants, how she tries to help the Hispanic community and why being an immigrant is no crime.

What services does Primera Llamada provide?

Primera Llamada started out as a resource to the Hispanic community, helping fill out forms, helping with the language barrier. We are not just legal services; we provide all sorts of information, whether it is politics or if people have any types of illnesses, where to get support groups, information on immigration

The largest and most important thing that we do is [provide] information. We help people assimilate. We also do English classes ... We don't charge consultation fees, because to me, information is key to everything in every area of our lives.

What inspired you to start?

I love helping people. I grew up in New York, but my parents and myself came from Ecuador. When we came to this country, we had a lot of people who helped us.

Word got around little by little that I did help people, and that I didn't charge a dime. Then I had people coming to me saying, "I have all these hospital bills," or "I have all these problems," and it just got to a point where I thought there's a need for a small office. But I had no idea that it was going to grow into everything else that we do. The largest and most important thing that we do is [provide] information. We help.

What is the situation for immigrants here?

There are a lot of problems that we have in the state of Idaho. We still have a lot of racism, a lot of misconceptions about other cultures. What I really want is for people—starting with the state of Idaho—to understand that if our people were able to come in legally, meaning documented, we would have done so. But in our countries, we work based on connections, and who knows who, and money. But if you're poor, you're not going to have the money or connections to wait for a visa. So you cross the border. We're at the point where there is complete persecution here in the state of Idaho towards our undocumented. They're treated as though they're criminals, and they're not criminals.

I think that that's the saddest thing. Because of all the sensationalism and the inciting of racism, we don't get to enjoy all this different culture—on both ends: our American community with our Hispanic, and our Hispanic community with our American.

Do you help both documented and undocumented immigrants?

Absolutely. Any person who has any kind of a question or a problem, we really try to inform or to help that person. The majority of the people in need at this point in our office are families calling with children where there's been an immigration crisis. My biggest thing is that they're not criminals. They're persecuted. Drinking and driving ... domestic violence, that's what I would consider a crime.

What about current immigration policy?

The system is broken. I think that both [Barack] Obama and Hillary Clinton will be pushing it more that we will have to tighten our borders first, and then we're going to see some kind of reform. I still think that it's going to be pushed aside as far as reform. Millions of people are undocumented who have been here for years who have filed their taxes, who are hardworking, who are great role models. What do we do with people like that? We can't get rid of everybody.

What do you think would happen to Idaho's economy without immigrants?

The economy in Idaho is going to suffer tremendously because we're still an agricultural state. I want to see who is going to do that work. The Mexican community to me is the hardest working community.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing immigrants in Idaho?

The biggest challenge is definitely racism and, in my opinion, racial profiling. It's just interesting why so many Hispanic men are being stopped for a crooked registration sticker. Because I look Hispanic, in my opinion, I would probably get stopped over a person who didn't look Hispanic. Is this a coincidence, or is something really going on as to why Hispanic men are being stopped?

What are some of your biggest hurdles trying to help immigrants?

Our community has got to learn English. A lot of our community will sign contracts without understanding what's on that contract. That's a huge problem because we have to try and help undo what's been done.

What laws do you think would improve the situation in Idaho?

The very first thing that affects not just undocumented is the fact that the undocumented cannot get licenses here. The state of Idaho ... gives no licenses, but [immigrants] still are going to have to drive. There are no buses going from farms to farms or construction place to construction place. It affects every motorist and pedestrian in Idaho.

How hard is it to become documented?

It's extremely difficult. For example, if a person was in the process of becoming a permanent resident, some of the requirements are that you have to wait five years, and then you can go ahead and put in an application to become an American citizen. Then you have to be able to prove moral turpitude, and that you have not broken the law. You then have to take a test—civics, English proficiency, written. Then you go through a swearing-in ceremony. Every time I'm invited, I shed a tear because I look around the room and I think of each person who is taking the allegiance to this great country and what have they gone through in order to become a citizen of the United States. Out of everything that we do, my favorite service that we provide is helping people become American citizens.

For more information about Primera Llamada call 208-442-9800.

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