Council staff working with Idaho migrant kids feel unsafe. After El Paso, they’re taking precaution

Editor’s note: Due to incorrect information provided to the Statesman, this story has been corrected to reflect that one threatening incident in Caldwell was reported more than once to the Community Council of Idaho staff rather than reports of multiple incidents across the state. The signs have already been purchased and are now being added to the buses.

The Community Council of Idaho plans to remove and conceal signage on buses it uses to transport local children of farmworkers and Head Start participants. A Caldwell bus driver reported a threatening incident with other motorists that made her feel unsafe as she was transporting children younger 5.

“It’s really heartbreaking, because they’re children,” said Sonnay Alvarez, spokeswoman for the Community Council of Idaho. The council runs 10 Head Start centers for children of migrant workers across the state.

“They don’t understand what hate is,” she said.

Each bus transports eight to 12 kids from their homes to the center.

The staff said they assume the buses draw attention because they’re labeled “Migrant and Seasonal Head Start” — and people may think that migrant means undocumented.

“Migrant doesn’t necessarily mean ‘illegal,’” Alvarez told the Statesman. “Migrant means people move in search of work, which is what our program is. We have people who might move from East Idaho to Caldwell because of the work that they’re in.”

The council provides a range of services and support to farmworkers and Latinos in rural Idaho, as well as their children. The council was founded in 1971 and is the largest nonprofit serving Latinos in Idaho.

Roughly 800 children every year attend the Community Council of Idaho’s Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs. Head Start is a federally funded early childhood education program for low-income children, but Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs like the Community Council of Idaho’s are specifically for low-income children whose families are migrants or work in agricultural jobs.

The report was scary and disheartening for Community Council of Idaho staff, even before a man was charged with killing 22 people with an AK-47-style assault rifle in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. The alleged shooter later told police that he was trying to kill “Mexicans,” The Washington Post reported.

But after the shooting, staff saw the report of the incident in a far more sinister light. In addition to obscuring the words “migrant” on their buses, several Head Start centers are planning to add security cameras, tint windows and block playgrounds from the sight of passers-by.

Alvarez said the staff also hopes to work with local law enforcement, although they haven’t passed the report onto police yet. Spokesman Joe Decker confirmed that no one reported any local incident to the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office.

Margie Gonzalez, the executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said this isn’t the first time she’s heard of things like this happening in Idaho, but it was jarring in the wake of national events.

“We’d be a little crazy to believe it doesn’t exist,” Gonzalez said. “Regardless of whether they are children or adults, I think that type of behavior is not OK. It’s something that is here. I feel bad for the families and children that it is affecting personally. You never know what that could lead to.”

Casa de Colores, the Head Start center in Caldwell, has three buses. The Emiliano Zapata Migrant Head Start Day Care in Burley won a $5,000 grant to install security cameras, but tinting windows would cost about $3,000 for each center.

Alvarez said the report rattled staff so much that there were brief discussions about other ways to eliminate the word migrant on the bus, such as abbreviating the name.

“But that’s the name of the program,” Alvarez said. “People just shouldn’t be offensive to our buses or our kids. For now, we are going to cover it up.”

Gonzalez said it’s important that Idaho leaders address these issues publicly, making it clear that hate and discrimination are unwelcome in Idaho. She said the commission’s board is planning a meeting with Idaho Gov. Brad Little next month, and that will be one of the main things they ask him.

“In people’s eyes, we are all undocumented,” Gonzalez said. “If we’re brown skinned and have dark hair, we are all undocumented. It’s just the way society is right now. Whether we were born here or not.”


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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.