FIRTH — The director of Idaho’s Department of Agriculture called for immigration reform at an event in Firth on Wednesday.
Responding to an audience question at a “Capital for a Day” event at City Hall, Celia Gould pointed to statistics that say 90 percent of Idaho’s agricultural workforce is foreign-born, a number that, she said, includes many refugees as well as unauthorized immigrants.
“It’s critical that we allow people to work in this nation. … For me, it’s not just a business decision, it’s a moral decision as well,” Gould said. “When we invite people to work on our dairies, they become part of our families.”
Gould mentioned an agricultural guestworker bill being sponsored by U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who has been a frequent ally of Idaho congressman and gubernatorial candidate Raul Labrador on immigration issues. Gould said the American Farm Bureau Federation supports the bill but some other industry groups oppose it. Gould criticized the “touchback” provision, or the requirement that unauthorized immigrants living here now return to their home countries and apply for jobs from there. This wouldn’t work for dairies since cows have to be milked every day, she said.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said he supports ending illegal immigration but also sees a need for a guest worker program that moves quickly so farmers can find workers.
Bill Reid, who was in the audience, said he agrees with President Theodore Roosevelt’s view on immigration, citing a quote of his from a letter Roosevelt wrote in 1919:
“Every immigrant should be allowed to learn the English language in … five years,” Reid said. “Otherwise, get out of here.”
Gould said she “respectfully disagree(d)” with Reid’s view. She said much of the problem is because of political inaction on fixing the system.
“Quite frankly, as a nation we haven’t fixed it,” she said.
Gould said it would be a good idea for everyone to learn more languages, repeating an old joke that someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, someone who speaks two languages is bilingual and someone who speaks one language is American. It drew a handful of groans and chuckles, although most of the audience stayed silent.
“I think as a nation we just have to learn to be a little more tolerant,” Gould said.
Immigration was one of a number of hot-button topics that came up at “Capital for a Day,” a periodic event where Otter and his cabinet visit small towns such as Firth to hear from people and answer questions.
Otter fielded a wide range of questions from the crowd and took a number of potentially controversial stances, including saying that arming teachers could be part of the answer to deterring school shootings and strongly implying that he would veto a bill to legalize cannabidiol oil for medical purposes that is working its way through the Legislature.
Otter expressed mixed views on changing the state’s self-defense laws to give more specific protections to people who kill others in self-defense. A “stand your ground” bill, which would specify that there is no “duty to retreat” in Idaho and expand the definition of justifiable homicide to cover defending one’s vehicle or place or employment as well as one’s home, passed the state Senate on Friday and now heads to the House. Another, more far-reaching bill that would establish a stronger presumption of innocence and immunity from prosecution for people who use force in self-defense was introduced a little more than a month ago but hasn’t gotten a hearing yet.
“What they are trying to do is codify what the practice has been,” Otter said. “But in doing that, we don’t want to give license to my brother-in-law to shoot me because he doesn’t like me, by saying ‘he came into my home.’”
Otter also praised President Donald Trump, saying he likes both his style and his political philosophy of leaving more decisions to the states. This, Otter said, is more in line with what the Founding Fathers intended.
“I really enjoy him,” Otter said. “He’s like a wild man. We used to call people like that an unguided missile.”
“Don’t you write that down,” Otter joked, pointing to Aaron Moore, one of a number of local high school students in the crowd.
“I’ve got to get an A somehow!” Moore replied.
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews