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Administration’s words on immigration leave uncertainty for Idaho employers

Farm workers in an Idaho field.

Farm workers in an Idaho field. Many of the state’s agricultural leaders say immigration policy reform is vital to help farmers find the workers they need. File photo

Potential new immigration policies from the administration of President Donald Trump are leading to uncertainty in the immigrant labor force, particularly in Idaho’s lucrative agricultural sector.

“There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty both in the workforce and among business owners themselves about the future supply and demand for labor,” said Priscilla Salant, recently retired director of the McClure Center at the University of Idaho, which recently completed the study Community Impacts of Idaho’s Dairy Workforce.

The majority of the immigrant workforce, particularly in agriculture, is Hispanic. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, Idaho’s Hispanic population grew 3.3 percent between mid-2015 and mid-2016, up from a 2.9 percent increase the previous year, and has grown 18 percent since the 2010 census, for an increase of 31,833 people for a total of 297,740.

Rumors and misconceptions about new immigration policies and crackdowns are sowing fear among the community, Salant said. “There’s a huge explosion of uninformed information out on the Internet and communities about what’s happening,” she said. “That’s not good. Employers and immigrants need certainty about what the future will bring.”

J.J. Saldana

J.J. Saldana

The McClure Center is working with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs (ICHA) on public forums around the state to help allay concerns. The agency calms people’s fears, and then turns the floor over to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholic Charities, and the Mexican Consulate to answer individual questions, said J.J. Saldaña, ICHA community resource development specialist.

workforce-story-sept-2017Already, small communities like Jerome – where 600 people recently protested a planned cooperative effort with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – are seeing an effect, with not just fewer workers but also an attendance drop of Hispanic students and fewer Hispanics going out to shop and dine, because even legal residents are concerned about racial profiling, Saldaña said. “If they lose a lot of the Hispanic population in places like Jerome, they’re going to lose a big chunk of their workforce,” he said.

This is a problem because Idaho already has a low unemployment rate, which makes it harder for businesses to find workers, and the Magic Valley already has a labor shortage at current wage rates, Salant said. “The only conclusion I can draw is that the President’s immigration policies and statements will exacerbate that labor shortage,” she said.

Dairy cows.

Dairy cows. File photo

“We don’t have enough people to do the jobs we’re trying to do in agriculture,” agreed Luke Ankeny, manager of labor for the Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee Inc., which helps provide up to 1,500 temporary farm workers in the area. That makes it hard to harvest labor-intensive crops like hops, onions, and seed corn, he said.

While the theory is that non-immigrant Idaho residents would fill those jobs, the reality is that it’s hard work that non-immigrants are often unable or unwilling to do, Ankeny said, adding that pay starts at $10 an hour and goes up from there.

How many immigrant workers are here illegally isn’t talked about much. According to Pew Research Center research, the number of undocumented immigrants in Idaho is essentially the same, at 45,000, as at the beginning of the recession, Salant said. Ankeny said his organization checks documents to make sure all the workers are legal, but agreed undocumented workers are out there. “Like it or not, a large portion are illegal immigrants,” he said. “We take those people away, I don’t know that we have willing people to replace those jobs.”

Not everyone is concerned. “I’m sure there’s people in the Hispanic community who are worried and concerned, especially in the Magic Valley, but I haven’t heard of any big issues,” said John Thompson, director of public relations for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, in Pocatello. While he agreed farms were having trouble finding workers, he wasn’t sure it was a reflection on the availability of Hispanics.

While the Magic Valley has a reputation for having many refugees, which could also fill in the employment gap, there are actually only about 700 in Boise and about 300 in the Magic Valley, and most are women and children, Salant said. Moreover, as President Trump has also talked about admitting fewer refugees, “I sure don’t see that as a long-term or major solution to the labor shortage,” she said.

The ultimate answer could be more automation. Dairies in areas such as Vermont and Nebraska are using robotic milking parlors, while orchards in Washington are experimenting with robotic apple-pickers. Interestingly, it’s usually the smaller dairy farms, not the larger ones, where automation is more practical, Salant said. “The best-case scenario is that the industry automates over time, at the same time that children of immigrants go on to better, higher-skilled jobs because they’re more educated and don’t want to work on dairy farms any more,” she said.

Strong ties between Idaho’s farming community and DC advocacy group

Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., visited Idaho in August to talk to groups including the Idaho Dairymen’s Association about immigration. The forum is an advocacy organization that promotes the value of immigrants and immigration; Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, is treasurer of the Immigration Forum.

Noorani, who grew up in California as the son of Pakistani immigrants, said the country will face a shortage of 7 million workers by the end of 2020.

“The economy is going to be starving for workers, so why would we want to slash legal immigration?” said Noorani. He spoke to the Idaho Business Review a few days after President Donald Trump endorsed a measure that would cut legal immigration by half.

“That’s why Idaho is so interesting,” said Noorani. “For a state that has an unemployment rate of 3 percent, and the nation’s third largest dairy industry, without people working and contributing on dairy farms, that native-born Idahoan who is shipping milk, or processing milk, is out of a job.”

Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani

When he spoke to Idaho Business Review, Noorani was on his second trip to Idaho. He had also had meetings in the Boise mayor’s office, with Boise Police Chief William Bones, and with the Idaho Milk Processors Association. He said he was in Idaho to talk to leaders who might open the door to changing residents’ minds about immigration.

“By engaging the leadership that Idahoans know and trust, their pastor, their police chief, their business owner, then you start to change hearts and minds,” he said.

About 75 members of the Dairymen’s Association went out to see Noorani speak in Twin Falls. He said he could tell they were anxious about the outcome of immigration policy discussions. “These guys have been up all day long, they’ve driven two hours, and while they’re not all Republican, most of them voted for Trump,” Noorani said. “They are wound up and anxious about enforcement action because it affects their workforce.”

He said farmers also told him they had gotten to know their Latino workers. “What I have learned is on dairy farms they’ve been working with their Latino workforce for 10 years and they see them as extension of family,” he said. “There is a personal, emotional anger related to this: What is this guy going to do not just to my business, but to people I know and love?”

 

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