| Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey stands in front of a “pod” in the Blaine County jail, where his office held 15 undocumented immigrants in 2012 as required by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to Ramsey, those inmates represented 1,779 of 21,020 total “jail days” in 2012. Since 2012, he said, ICE has only required his office to detain for deportation undocumented immigrants who are charged with felonies, as opposed to all undocumented lawbreakers. However, that hasn’t saved his office much money, he said, as ICE only partially reimburses him for detaining people on ICE “hold status.” Express photo by Willy Cook
Second in a two-part series.
The “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators who have united to reform U.S. immigration policy, introduced a bill early on Wednesday, April 17, that journalists across the nation have reported would be a “sweeping overhaul” of the country’s policy toward foreign-born people with an American dream.
Politico reported on April 17 that the Gang of Eight’s 844-page legislation would “create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented [immigrants], overhaul the legal immigration system and beef up border security.”
As the immigration reform issue comes to a head nationwide, advocates for reform have sprung out of the woodwork. On April 10, tens of thousands of immigrants and activists staged protests across the country, including at the U.S. Capitol. The following day, at least two Silicon Valley tech titans with Blaine County connections voiced opinions in support of reform.
Blaine County homeowner Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, on April 11 spoke in favor of a pathway to citizenship to increase the country’s productivity in an interview on NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” The TV interview was Jobs’ first since her husband’s death in late 2011.
“I started getting more and more active around immigration reform because this was such a waste of lives, such a waste of potential, such a waste for our country not to have the human capital that we developed geared towards improving our entire society,” she said. “We need all of these brains.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visits Sun Valley for the annual Allen & Co. business conference in July, wrote an op-ed in support of reform published by the Washington Post on April 11.
“We have a strange immigration policy for a nation of immigrants,” he wrote. “And it’s a policy unfit for today’s world.”
If Congress approves the Senate bill, it would be the first big change to the nation’s immigration laws since 1986.
What would happen here?
If reform occurs, how might it affect the health, safety and welfare of all Blaine County residents, especially concerning local health care, education and law enforcement?
In interviews, Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey and representatives of the Blaine County School District, the College of Southern Idaho’s Blaine County Center and St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center offered carefully phrased answers.
St. Luke’s spokeswoman Jenny King said the hospital has not taken any formal position on immigration reform, as health care is not mentioned specifically in any of the immigration reform efforts the hospital has seen.
“However, St. Luke’s is supportive of any effort that would allow individuals to access insurance coverage and seek the health care they need,” she said. “If the proposed reform does end up including an option for insurance to non-citizens, it would be positive for both the patient and the health care providers.”
King said the hospital does not “distinguish” undocumented people when they are admitted as patients.
“The existing immigration laws do not affect St. Luke’s or health care directly,” she said. “We are not obligated to alert authorities if a non-citizen is seen as a patient and in addition, if they apply for emergency Medicaid there is not a link to immigration.”
If reform did include an insurance option for undocumented patients, that might help defray a portion of the $1.2 million in charity care St. Luke’s provides each year. However, according to King, the hospital has “no way of knowing” what percentage of that sum goes to undocumented patients, as it does not distinguish them.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 20.7 percent of the county’s 21,378 residents are identified as Latinos, compared to 11.5 percent in Idaho and 16.7 percent in the United States. Though not all immigrants in Blaine County, the state of Idaho or the United States are Latino, that group does make up the largest ethnic minority in all three entities and the largest immigrant group.
The Blaine County School District’s website states that 34.5 percent of its students are Latino. If those youths stay in the county when they grow up, that would increase the Latino population and their percentage of the population.
Blaine County School District spokeswoman Heather Crocker said Idaho state law requires that the district ask all students for proof of residency in Blaine County. According to Blaine County Clerk JoLynn Drage, a person can establish Blaine County residency (and prove it) without being a U.S. citizen, but they can’t vote.
“All public schools are responsible for educating all children regardless of race, income, class or ability,” Crocker said. “It’s the foundation of public schools.”
Though a high school degree would remain about as accessible to undocumented students in the county, post-secondary education could become easier to obtain if reform occurred. Jenny Davidson, director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Blaine County Center, said CSI’s classes are open to all students regardless of immigration status, but undocumented students don’t currently qualify for federal financial aid.
“Immigration reform could allow more students to receive federal financial aid, which certainly provides huge assistance for people accessing post-secondary education,” she said.
Ramsey, the county sheriff, said granting undocumented immigrants legal status would likely not affect the crime rate in the county.
“I don’t think whether they’re legal or not makes a difference,” he said. “If you’re going to break laws, you’re going to do it regardless. We’re talking about a small percentage of the undocumented population that commits crimes. The majority of them certainly didn’t come up here to commit a crime,” he said.
However, undocumented immigrants are now committing a crime simply by living in Blaine County. Nonetheless, Ketchum attorney Adam King said that sometimes lawbreakers effectively demonstrate how the nation’s lawmakers may have gone wrong.
“Rosa Parks committed a crime when she sat down on that bus in Montgomery [Ala. in 1955],” he said. “But she helped us realize that our society had huge problems. I don’t see a real difference.”
Parks has since received top civilian honors from the White House and Congress, including the unveiling in February (for her 100th birthday) of a statue in her likeness in the Capitol.
Reform could come soon
Immigration reform could happen imminently, politically speaking. The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, April 13, that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she expects Congress to adopt a reformed immigration policy before taking its summer recess on Aug. 5. In addition to the Gang of Eight senators who introduced an immigration reform bill last week, a separate group of eight legislators—this time in the House of Representatives and including Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho—is currently in the final stretch of proposing a similar bill. Reuters reported on April 16 that President Barack Obama has said he will submit his own immigration reform proposal should he find sufficient fault with the work of Congress. ABC reported the same day that Obama supports the Senate Bill. Reuters also reports that the Senate bill “faces months of debate, scores of amendments and potentially significant opposition.” In a Pew Research Center poll released March 28, 71 percent of Americans said there should be a way for undocumented people currently living in the U.S. to stay legally.
Brennan Rego: firstname.lastname@example.org