Idaho's Hispanic Population: Power Brokers-In-The-Making 

Idaho Latinos keep close eye on new immigration reforms in Utah

click to enlarge Veteran Latino activists Humberto Fuentes and Rafael Ortiz"There are so many myths floating about immigrants. So many lies."

George Prentice

Veteran Latino activists Humberto Fuentes and Rafael Ortiz"There are so many myths floating about immigrants. So many lies."

Idaho lawmakers hoping to push hard-line immigration reform may do so at their political peril. Certainly not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon, when Idaho's Latino population takes a firm hold of its ever-increasing political clout.

"Latinos are a sleeping giant," said Idaho Hispanic Caucus Chair Alex Zamora. "But the population is waking up. Latinos may not have been very active at the polls yet but it's going to happen. Someday soon, there's going to be a tipping point. The numbers are there."

The 2010 Census counted 176,000 Hispanics in Idaho: 6,000 more than forecasted. That's a whopping 73 percent more than the 2000 Census. The latest count will serve as a foundation for what is expected to be a volatile redistricting process, slicing up Idaho's political districts to better reflect population shifts.

"Redistricting could see lines drawn around very distinct Latino communities in Canyon County and in the Magic Valley," said Zamora. "That would have a huge impact on future elections."

There are other numbers to be reckoned with: 20,000 to 45,000, which is the just-released estimated range of unauthorized immigrants in Idaho. That's a 40 percent jump from 2000 and 250 percent higher than 1990.

A year ago, Arizona filled the nation's front pages with broad measures aimed at its illegal immigrants, including making the failure to carry immigration documents a crime. In 2010, 20 states including Idaho floated Arizona-style immigration bills. Some passed. Most didn't. In Idaho, an unlikely coalition mounted an opposition to quash the measures.

"It's good to make new friends," said Brent Olmstead.

Olmstead is an Idaho Statehouse fixture, a lobbyist for Idaho's dairy industry and former vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.

"Last year we pushed back [against the immigration bills] in a big way. We had a combination of groups that you don't often see at the Idaho Legislature," said Olmstead. "Idaho's business coalition led the opposition, joined by IACI and the Farm Bureau. But sitting alongside us were Idaho Catholic Charities and community action groups like the Idaho Community Action Network and the Idaho Migrant Council."

Just last month, another coalition surfaced in an unlikely setting: the Utah Legislature. Economists, faith leaders and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle came together to craft a unique package of immigration reform in one of the reddest of the red states--in Utah, where Republicans have won every U.S. Senate election since 1970. In a stunner, the GOP-driven Utah Legislature passed progressive immigration bills that included a guest worker program allowing unauthorized foreigners to work legally in the state. The hybrid package of legislation was a progressive alternative from traditional red state power brokers--social and political conservatives--and landed a quiet but all-important endorsement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"The LDS church cannot be ignored," said Olmstead. "The reform package had formal and informal support from the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, business leaders across Utah, even the attorney general signed off on it."

Olmstead said the bills were built on a strong foundation--something called "The Utah Compact," a simple but direct declaration of principles to guide the immigration discussion.

"It's a single page that is incredibly powerful," said Olmstead. "It states that immigrants are a huge part of our history. They contribute to our communities, churches and families. They are a welcome source to our workforce and education systems. And above all, it states that we shall pass no bills that denigrate or hurt the immigrant population, legal or illegal."

According to Olmstead, there's no reason something similar couldn't be written for Idaho.

"There are a lot of organizations and businesses that are working on something along the line of what Utah did. I wouldn't be surprised to see something like the Utah Compact surface in Idaho in 2012," said Olmstead.

That would be music to the ears of Humberto Fuentes, a veteran Latino activist and chairman of the board of the Idaho Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa.

"Every state, including Idaho, needs the immigrant worker, whether they're willing to admit it or not," said Fuentes. "There are so many myths floating about immigrants. So many lies."

Fuentes pointed to a recent report from the Social Security administration.

"Did you know that by 2007, the Social Security trust fund had received a net benefit of somewhere between $120 billion and $240 billion from undocumented immigrants?" asked Fuentes.

Latino activist Rafael Ortiz read the same study.

"Undocumented workers contribute a lot more to this country than they take," said Ortiz. "According to the Internal Revenue Service, between one-half and three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal and state income taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes."

Ortiz and Fuentes agreed the debate is complex.

"We have to look at the whole picture," said Fuentes. "We need to examine whether the undocumented worker is hurting or helping the economy. And if they're helping, why can't we do something humane?"

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