TWIN FALLS — Heated debate over a failed City Council resolution denouncing family separation at the U.S. border has died down in recent weeks, but city officials say they continue to participate in conversations about how to engage the immigrant community going forward.
The resolution, which dominated public comment for five City Council meetings in a row through July and August, did not pass. But some backers of the initiative say they believe it opened the door for a broader dialogue about Latino representation and voices in local government.
Despite the Magic Valley’s large immigrant population, few Latinos are found on nearby city councils, county commissions and other government boards. Increasing Latino involvement in local government could provide these bodies with valuable new perspectives, some in the Hispanic community say, and may boost levels of engagement in statewide politics as well.
Serving on a planning and zoning board, for instance, can provide important lessons and skills to someone interested in working in government, said Dan Ramirez, a Rupert native and former director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
“We all have to start somewhere, and you have to also understand how the system works,” Ramirez said. “The local governments are a great place to do that because you get to know the politics of it.”
Ramirez, who has worked for politicians such as U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne and Gov. Phil Batt, acknowledges that some of that engagement has to come from within the Hispanic community. But he also believes government officials have a role to play.
“I believe that Latinos have to make their own initiative to want to be in those positions,” he said. “But we also need the local politicians, if they’re going to seek the Hispanic vote, to consider them for different boards and commissions and local government positions.”
The Twin Falls Planning and Zoning Commission rarely receives applications from minority residents, chairman Gerardo Munoz said. One of the biggest obstacles, according to Munoz, is a lack of awareness in the Hispanic community that such opportunities exist.
“I think there is a little bit of education in the Latino community that needs to be done here,” Munoz said. “We need to make people aware that participating in government is a responsibility, something we need to be part of.”
Munoz said he isn’t sure whose responsibility it is, exactly, to spread that awareness. “Some of the problem is it’s not a single place or a single organization that should be responsible,” he said.
Like Ramirez, Munoz said that some of the initiative has to come from the Hispanic community itself. But he also believes it would be helpful if government bodies publicized available opportunities through media outlets more widely consumed by the Latino community, such as local Spanish radio stations.
In Twin Falls, debate over the failed family separation resolution led to some supporters of the resolution asking the City Council to create a diversity advisory commission that would address issues directly affecting minority communities.
“It’s just almost like we’re invisible to the eye, and it’s every human’s basic need to be heard and seen,” said Yvette Flores of Eden, who has advocated for the creation of a diversity commission.
“We need people ... who can honor our experiences, who can be our voices, make us feel like we are heard,” Flores said.
“I think a diversity commission would be an amazing start for Twin Falls,” said Twin Falls resident Omar Huerta. “I think it would help everyone engage with what’s going on around the community.”
Earlier this week, Mayor Shawn Barigar and City Manager Travis Rothweiler met with some proponents of creating such a commission, Barigar said. He described the gathering as “a productive meeting to better understand the issues of support for the immigrant community in Twin Falls.”
Going forward, he wrote in an email to the Times-News, the city will “continue to discuss ways to build meaningful connections in the community.”
Any formal action regarding the creation of a diversity commission would need to be discussed by the full City Council, Barigar said. The matter isn’t currently scheduled on any agendas.
Ramirez said he sees value in a local commission to address issues that directly impact Latinos and other minority communities.
But “it would only be impactful if those committees’ recommendations are taken seriously and implemented by local leadership,” he said. “If they don’t implement any of that, it’s useless.”