How to solve illegal immigration is one of the most contested issues in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. Both of the major party candidates, incumbent Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick and Republican state Rep. Raul Labrador, have spent campaign time and money talking about their proposed fixes and slamming their opponent’s stance on the issue.

Minnick has run three different TV ads on illegal immigration critical of Labrador’s comments and work as an immigration lawyer. Labrador has defended his work, while airing commercials calling Minnick’s proposals on illegal immigration amnesty, one of several loaded words in the illegal immigration debate.

Labrador’s line of work adds attention to the issue. He has said that his background in immigration law makes him better suited to go to Congress and craft a solution for what he calls his number one issue. Minnick, through his negative commercials, has tried to raise questions about the consistency of Labrador’s views on the topic.

Both Minnick and Labrador say they oppose amnesty, but defining amnesty can be difficult. Both promised in a survey by NumbersUSA, a group that wants to lower immigration levels, that they oppose a blanket amnesty offering a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Both have also called for an improved guest worker system and more security on the Mexican border, with Labrador suggesting the National Guard could keep watch.

Still, the candidates have different ideas on what to do about illegal immigrants already in the U.S. Labrador, whose campaign site has had a prominent link to his immigration policy for months, wants people in the U.S. to return to their home country before applying for a guest worker program or other legal status.

“It’s illegal to be in the United States illegally,” Labrador said at a Boise debate Thursday. “If a person is here illegally, they should go back to their home country.”

Minnick favors a plan that would allow people to stay in the U.S., but face some consequences. “What I would do is force them out of the shadows, give them a short period of time to register, have them go before a judge, and pay the penalty for being here illegally,” Minnick said during a radio debate in early October. “That could be going to jail. It could be deportation. It could be a hefty financial fine. Then, give them papers so that they could be here temporarily and … then they could go in the back of a line for a green card, not citizenship.”

Labrador has run radio commercials featuring Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio calling Minnick’s plan amnesty. Minnick has argued that because people would, at minimum, pay a fine, it can’t be called amnesty.

Some immigration experts say the amnesty label fits Minnick’s plan. Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was one of the leaders during President George W. Bush’s efforts to pass immigration reform, said that, politically, Minnick’s plan amounts to amnesty and would likely be a non-starter in Congress. Craig, who supports Labrador in the race, said he held views similar to Minnick when he was in the Senate, but couldn’t get a plan approved by the House and Senate.

“It always depends on how you define amnesty,” said Brent Olmstead, who leads the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform and is a lobbyist in Boise for the Milk Producers of Idaho. “Everyone defines it differently.” Olmstead said the policy ideas from both Minnick and Labrador are workable. He said his group is most concerned with improving guest worker programs that are user-friendly for both employers and workers.

NumbersUSA labeled both Minnick and Labrador as “true reformers” on immigration based on their survey answers, though Roy Beck, the group’s executive director, said he’s troubled by their specific policy ideas. He said Minnick’s plan sounded like provisional amnesty and said Labrador’s plan could lead to an increase in legal immigration, which his group opposes.

“They aren’t making clear, unequivocal promises,” Beck told “They’ve both got very customized ideas about what to do, neither of which seem to match the anti-amnesty leaders in Congress.”

Beck also said that Minnick’s two-year record in Congress, while slim on immigration issues, included resisting support for plans that would give comfort to what he called “amnesty advocates.”

The sometimes nasty campaigning in the 1st District hasn’t helped encourage discussion on immigration, according to Leo Morales with the Idaho Community Action Network, an organization that promotes immigrants’ rights and favors a comprehensive immigration reform similar to the plan Craig worked on.

“The messages that they’re putting together don’t really resolve the broken immigration system that the federal government really needs to deal with,” Morales said.

The immigration debate between Minnick and Labrador has received national attention, with Minnick receiving scorn for his commercials and rejecting assertions that they are racially motivated. Labrador was born in Puerto Rico, and said during a television debate that Minnick’s ads make him look like an illegal immigrant.

“It’s a missed opportunity for both of them to talk talk about solutions that not only are good for immigrants but good for all of the constituents in the 1st District,” said Tyler Moran, the policy director for the National Immigration Law Center, another organization that favors comprehensive reform that could allow illegal immigrants meet a series of requirements and checks in order to obtain a temporary legal status in the U.S.  Moran pointed to a 2009 poll of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District suggesting a majority of people support such reforms.

“Regardless about what you feel about immigration, this is not working,” Moran said. “We have to fix the system.”

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