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The two Democratic hopefuls for Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat, Staniela Nikolova of Moscow and Rudy Soto of Nampa, drew on their own personal experiences as they discussed issues during the Idaho Debates on Idaho Public Television on Thursday evening.

Both said they believe health care is a human right. Both spoke out for keeping Idaho’s federal public lands public, called for stronger federal action to combat climate change, and were critical of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked about their priorities on immigration, both spoke passionately.

Soto said, “There are a lot of opinions on this issue. I’ve lived it from all sides. My dad is an immigrant from Mexico, he came here in the 1960s to work in the farms and fields. He gained legal status under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. I myself, while in the Army National Guard, was deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border to help protect it. So I know it up close.”

Soto said those experiences are what drive him to want to work to revamp the nation’s H-2A visa system; to work for comprehensive immigration reform that provides pathways to legal status and citizenship; and “to protect Dreamers and TPS (temporary protected status) holders, as well as stop the shameful separation of children and families. That’s not in line with our values and who we are as a country. We’ve got to stay true to our history and heritage.”

Soto, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said, “Unless you’re a Native American, your ancestors were newcomers. We are a nation of immigrants. We’ve got to stay that way. It’s what makes us special, and we will always be amazing because of that.”

Nikolova said, “I read somewhere where somebody said that only skilled workers should be allowed in the United States. I keep thinking about my experience as an immigrant, because I am the kind of person that was a refugee and came into this country under refugee status and I have been here for almost all of my life. I have Idaho running through my blood.”

“It’s a misconception that I haven’t done anything for my community, that I haven’t contributed, that I haven’t worked hard,” she said. “I mean, I went to undergraduate, I went to law school, I’m running for office, I’m participating fully in trying to solve some of the problems that we face, and my story is not unique.”

“We have a lot of other stories of immigrants who are maybe not extremely wealthy when they come into this country, but they work hard every day to add to our communities,” Nikolova said. “So I think we need to make sure that we are letting people in who are going to create that diversity that we value as Americans.”

She added, “I understand border security and I understand the fact that we are a nation and we can’t let everybody in, but I think that a lot of the immigration problems that we see have been slightly hyped up by partisan politics.”

Throughout the half-hour Q-&A, which was broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television, Soto repeatedly stressed his desire to work across party lines with 2nd District GOP Rep. Mike Simpson on issues, and how his experience working in Washington, D.C., has prepared him to “hit the ground running” if elected.

Nikolova said she’s running for personal reasons, after hearing a congressional debate in which a member suggested there can’t be climate change because it was snowing outside. “That kind of scientific illiteracy isn’t doing our population any justice,” she said. “I’m not a politician, but I’m running for office because I see a lot of problems in Congress, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do anything about it.”

The Idaho Debates, a long tradition in Idaho elections, altered their format for this spring’s primary due to social distancing requirements related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of a face-to-face debate, the candidates answered identical questions from moderator Melissa Davlin via videoconferencing, and their answers were then spliced together to allow people to compare them.

Davlin said, “While the format doesn’t allow for a back and forth between candidates or follow-up questions from me, it does get basic information out to voters, which like everything, is a challenge this year.”

The Idaho Debates are sponsored by the Idaho Press Club, Idaho Public Television, the Idaho League of Women Voters, the University of Idaho McClure Center, Idaho State University’s Department of Political Science, and Boise State University’s School of Public Service.

Three installments are being aired for contested races in this spring’s May 19 primary election; the first featured Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate; this was the second; and on Friday night, the GOP challengers for the 1st and 2nd congressional districts were scheduled to appear, but 2nd District challenger Kevin Rhoades was a no-show, so just 1st District challenger Nicholas Jones appeared. Both incumbents, GOP Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson, declined to participate.

The full programs can be viewed online at idahoptv.org/idahodebates.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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