When it comes to immigration and refugees, presidents and Congress get to say, but mayors have to do.
I’m the mayor of Boise, where immigrants have played a significant role since before statehood. That role has had a major impact on the success of this city and state. President-elect Trump and Congress should keep Boise’s experience and the experience of many cities in the United States in mind when addressing immigration and refugee issues.
My own life is an example of how the immigration experience in the United States has worked. My grandfather immigrated to Boise from the Basque region of Spain in 1912, along with thousands of others. He herded sheep — tough, solitary work that few native born Americans wanted. He met my grandmother, another Basque immigrant, here in Boise and they built a life for my mother and her two sisters.
Their story was similar to those of thousands of Basques who succeeded in Idaho. Today, it’s easy to forget that in 1909 a local newspaper described Basque immigrants as “filthy, treacherous, and meddlesome ... clannish and undesirable.” Fortunately, most Idahoans ignored that.
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Thousands of Latino immigrants have pursued similar paths through hard, unpopular work on the road to better lives in the Boise Valley. Like Basque immigrants to Idaho, Latinos haven’t always faced an easy road. As late as the 1950s, signs posted outside some doors in the area warned “Mexicans, Negroes, Jews, Indians and dogs” to stay out. Again, fortunately, most Idahoans ignored that. The Latino contribution to our lives is unmistakable. Without them, many of Idaho’s most important industries would have collapsed long ago.
And so it is today with refugees. Boise is home to Bosnians, Somalis, Iraqis and Syrians. Our city government reaches out through nearly all departments — police to ensure refugees know they are safe; parks and recreation programs help refugee children enjoy our outdoors, like all our children do; library programs help with access to computers and other learning tools; our arts and history programs help with cultural activities. We offer these same programs to all Boiseans. We don’t debate about who is more worthy or where they’re from. We are a welcoming city. We all have work to do.
Refugees enrich our city. They are some of the hardest working Boiseans. They give vibrancy to our schools. Some have even opened new businesses in older parts of Boise. Our city gets back many times over what it gives.
Boise doesn’t welcome our newcomers just out of goodwill and the bottom line. We also do so because we understand that the constant addition of new and energized people from many places around the world is this country’s oxygen. That doesn’t mean things are easy.
But the United States has never taken the easy route, through wars and depressions and the shifting world — and that’s why we are the United States. From our city’s beginnings in the 1860s, Boise has benefited from the energy and hard work of its newcomers from all over the globe. It would be a mistake to shut that off.
Donald Trump has promised to make America great again, but we in Boise know that greatness comes from everywhere.
David H. Bieter is serving his fourth term as mayor of the City of Boise.