BOISE — Arizona’s law targeting undocumented immigrants is casting a shadow on an Idaho U.S. House race, with Republican candidate Raul Labrador saying Tuesday the federal government should send the military to the Mexican border because state-by-state solutions like Arizona’s won’t be effective.
Meanwhile, his rival in the 1st Congressional District, Vaughn Ward, questioned Labrador’s credibility, saying his job as an immigration lawyer — and his absence during a state House hearing earlier this year where lawmakers killed a bill targeting employers who hire illegal workers — make him a less-trustworthy choice to represent western and northern Idaho.
Labrador is a state representative from Eagle; Ward is a U.S. Marine major who also lives in Eagle. They’re vying in the May 25 GOP primary to face U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho.
Arizona’s law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally and directs local police to question individuals about their immigration status and demand documentation if they suspect a person is in the country illegally.
The law has prompted several legal challenges.
It’s also helped immigration resurface as a campaign issue in Idaho; it was a major theme in the 2006 1st Congressional District House GOP primary, too.
Ward backs Arizona’s law, in lieu of more aggressive federal action.
“States are now forced to consider taking matters into their own hands,” Ward said.
Labrador, who represents clients before immigration judges, sometimes to help them remain in the United States after they’ve violated laws and are subject to deportation, said he sympathizes with Arizona residents who are frustrated with those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
But he criticized what he called “a piecemeal solution to the problem of illegal immigration.” Instead, Labrador said the federal government must enforce existing laws, secure the border with the military and require illegal immigrants to return home before applying for legal U.S. residency.
“I do not support amnesty,” Labrador said. “I would be willing to offer illegals an incentive who have a desire to become legal productive members of our society an incentive to come forward: Should they do so willingly and in some reasonable time frame, we would give them consideration by the State Department to return legally.”
Labrador said he’s seen e-mails and Internet “innuendo” about his roots — he was born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory — that suggest he can’t be trusted on immigration. He links them to Ward, but adds he has nothing to prove Ward is trying to smear his campaign.
“He is hoping, it seems, to appeal to the darkest recesses of the human soul by taking cheap advantage of my work in immigration law and maybe even my ethnic heritage,” Labrador said.
Ryan O’Barto, Ward’s campaign spokesman, said Ward never raised Labrador’s Puerto Rican origins.
“This is just an outlandish claim,” O’Barto said, before adding Labrador’s willingness to defend illegal aliens and others in federal courts remains a fair campaign issue.
“Would he represent terrorists?” O’Barto said.
Labrador says he’s been a practicing immigration lawyer for more than a decade and has never represented terrorists.
“It’s an outlandish and irresponsible statement, and it shows the desperation that their campaign is going through right now,” Labrador said.
O’Barto also said Labrador’s absence from a Feb. 18 Idaho House State Affairs hearing — lawmakers shot down a plan that sought to punish businesses caught knowingly hiring illegal workers — showed his faltering commitment to this issue.
“How can he stand up for this issue in Congress, when he doesn’t show up for it in Idaho?” Ward’s spokesman said.
Labrador, a House State Affairs Committee member, co-sponsored the failed measure. On Tuesday, he said a business matter at his law practice prevented him from attending the February hearing.
He now concedes he should have delayed the hearing.
“That was my bad,” Labrador said. “I should have just told them, ‘Let’s wait two more weeks.’”