Idaho businesses, organizations push for immigration reform

Undocumented workers play a crucial role in the state economy, advocates say.

krodine@idahostatesman.comAugust 18, 2013 

  • Hispanic buying power rises

    Hispanic immigrants without legal status contribute to the economy in ways beyond tackling otherwise hard-to-fill jobs, experts say. They point to data that show Hispanics in Idaho have economic clout that is disproportionate to their income - which falls far short of nonHispanics' earnings.

    "The Hispanic population as a whole is pretty powerful when it comes to buying power," said J.J. Saldana, community resource development officer for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "Even when the economy was down, Hispanic buying power still continued to rise."

    The most recent Idaho Hispanic Buying Power report from the state Department of Labor said the state's largest minority increased its buying power much more dramatically than other populations between 2010 and 2011, jumping 11.2 percent to nearly $3.2 billion. NonHispanic buying power was up 6 percent to top $46.1 billion.

    The report defines buying power as "the after-tax personal income people have to spend on virtually everything from necessities like food, clothing and housing to luxuries like recreation equipment and vacations. It does not include money that has been borrowed or that is saved from previous years."

    In its 2012 Hispanic Databook, the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs cites several reasons for the growth, including:

    - A relatively young population - 45 percent of Idaho's Hispanics were 19 or younger in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. For nonHispanics, that demographic represented 28 percent.

    - A growing number of Hispanic business owners and increases in entrepreneurial activity.

    "The Hispanic community tends to be more workers than not," said Boise financial adviser Calvin Gates. "Whether it's above board or below board, they're working and earning a living."

  • Kristin Rodine

    A Statesman editor and writer since 2001, Kristin covers business with particular interest in the people and issues involved in the economy, technology and law.

Many of the people Ivan Carrillo sells auto insurance to are in Idaho illegally. They work hard, pay taxes, buy insurance and live in fear of being forced out, he says.

Carrillo relates to that anxiety: A native of Mexico, he came to Idaho with his family at age 6 but didn't gain legal status until he was 14. He didn't truly feel at ease until he became a U.S. citizen just before he turned 18.

"When I became a citizen I felt forgiven, almost. It was a huge change, a huge weight off my shoulders," said the 26-year-old, who works at Nampa's El Centro, a business that sells insurance and tax-preparation services to a mostly immigrant population, both legal and not.

"I would like to see a reform that not only permits people to lawfully be here, but is not just temporary," Carrillo said. "Then these people can aspire to much more. Then they can invest in our economy much more. They would be willing to buy houses. They would be willing to contribute more to this country."

Idaho businesses and trade organizations are seeking immigration reform as a way to keep needed workers, fill jobs and offer security to hard-working families who lack legal status.

Workers without legal residency pack an economic punch at markets, malls and purveyors of services and goods large and small. But they generally can't buy houses, invest their money or make other transactions that require proof of legal residency.

"There's a lot of people standing there and wanting to buy and do a lot of things, but they can't because they don't have the right documentation," said Boise financial adviser Calvin Gates, who advocates granting a path to citizenship for workers who now live in the legal shadows. "Home purchases, investing in the markets - those are things that grow the economy.

"Immigrants are more than twice as likely as U.S.-born citizens to start a small business," Gates said, echoing the ratio cited by Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "That means immigrants are making jobs, not taking them.

"In our local economies, one business's employee is another business's customer, so immigrant business owners who are creating jobs are also creating more customers for other local businesses. We need more of that."

HUGE SHARE OF AG WORKERS

Just how many of those immigrants are here unlawfully is an elusive number, as those who entered the United States illegally generally must hide their status to stay on the job and in the state. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2010, about 20,000 Idaho workers - 2.8 percent of the total workforce - were not legal residents. The Pew study estimated Idaho's total number of immigrants without legal status at 35,000 that year, 2.2 percent of the state's 1.5 million population.

In Idaho's front-line agriculture jobs such as dairy and field workers, industry estimates hover around 70 percent here illegally, said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

That estimate is drawn from immigration enforcement audits, Naerebout said. Idaho U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador has estimated that 90 percent of all Idaho dairy workers are here illegally.

Naerebout says that's too high, but he acknowledges that dairies and other major slices of Idaho's economy depend on a workforce that lacks legal status.

He said the unauthorized workers are hired "unknowingly by employers."

"They're all documented, it's just whether or not those documents would pass scrutiny of an ICE (U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) audit," Naerebout said.

Idaho's 540 dairies - 72 percent in the Magic Valley, 22 percent in the Treasure Valley and 6 percent in eastern Idaho - employ about 8,400 people, he said. In all, he said, 33,000 Idaho jobs hinge on the industry.

"If we don't have the employees in the dairies or in (the fields), doing the harvesting, then all the employees on top of that, their jobs would be at risk," Naerebout said.

He, too, argues that the nation must help dairy and other agriculture employees work toward legal residency and legally bring in more such workers in the future.

"Second-generation Americans aren't really looking at going into the agriculture industry," he said.

BUSINESSES BACK REFORM

The Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, saying, "There are not enough American workers available for and interested in filling many job positions."

Naerebout is a member of the coalition's board. So are representatives of the J.R. Simplot Co., the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

"It is tempting to think of these positions as unskilled labor (or semi-skilled at best)," the coalition wrote, "but the truth of the matter is that in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace, employers need the ability to fill job positions at all levels with the best workers available, some of whom may not be Americans."

Opponents of proposed immigration reform say it could reward immigrants for breaking U.S. law. They say immigrants without legal status take jobs that would otherwise be filled by citizens and represent a drain on services such as education and law enforcement.

The national Federation for American Immigration Reform, which aims to reduce all types of immigration and strengthen border control, argues that "the willingness of foreign workers to accept lower wages ... acts to depress wages and working conditions for all workers in that occupation" and makes those jobs less attractive to U.S. citizens who have other options.

Although Idaho business voices against immigration reform are scarce, the federation argues that the state's citizens see things differently.

In June, the federation announced results of a poll it commissioned that said two-thirds of Idaho respondents oppose granting legal status to people who are in the country illegally until a border security plan is fully implemented, and 74 percent oppose increases in guest workers. The poll said 54 percent of likely Idaho voters oppose the immigration reform bill the Senate passed that month and 36 percent support it.

Two months earlier, the Main Street Alliance and American Sustainable Business Council released a survey that found widespread small-business support for immigration reform. That support was echoed by Idaho small-business men and women, including Gates and Carrillo, who gathered in April at Meridian City Hall to reveal the poll results and urge Labrador to push for immigration reform. The survey found that 78 percent of small-business owners in Western states, including Idaho, support a road map for citizenship.

THE IDAHO DELEGATION'S RESISTANCE

Naerebout said his prime objectives for immigration reform are addressed by the Senate bill, including:

- A visa program that would allow Mexican and other foreign nationals to work in U.S. dairies and other businesses, to provide for "future flows" of workers.

- An "earned legalization program so that ... all of our current employees would be able to gain citizenship over time."

The "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" passed 68-32. Among the "nay" votes were Idaho's Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. Crapo has called for changes in the nation's immigration policy but said that the bill fails to do enough to stop illegal immigration at the border and ensure fairness. Risch agreed that immigration-law changes are necessary but said the bill overreaches.

If enacted, the bill would allow immigrants without legal status to sign up for a new Registered Provisional Immigrant program almost immediately, but they could not apply to become lawful permanent residents until a series of enforcement measures, including 700 miles of border fencing and thousands of new officers to patrol the border, were in place. Special measures would make the permanent residency process quicker for young people who came to the U.S. as children and agriculture workers who meet specific provisions.

The bill will face roadblocks in the House after Congress reconvenes in September. Labrador opposes the bill and said this month that a tour of the U.S. border strengthened his belief that the measure's "border surge" of nearly 20,000 new federal officers is the wrong approach. Instead, he said, state and local police should join the federal government in enforcing federal immigration law.

Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, took part in the bipartisan House Gang of Eight efforts to shape a House immigration reform bill, but dropped out in June after clashing with other members over his contention that immigrants without legal status should be responsible for their own health care costs.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a member of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, opposes amnesty and says "illegal immigrants mock those who respect our nation's sovereignty and legal immigration process."

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Offering a path to legal residency to undocumented workers would give thousands of people more security and confidence, said Irma Morin, executive director of the Idaho Community Council, a Caldwell-based nonprofit that works mainly with migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

Many of the council's federally funded programs are available only to legal residents, she said. The council has no statistics on Idaho workers who aren't here legally, she said. Neither does the Idaho Department of Labor, a spokesman said.

"Of the people I've spoken to, I estimate 65 percent want to become citizens, and the others want to make a difference and be here," Morin said. "They say, 'We just want to be legal - that's our concern.'"

Naerebout, of the Dairymen's Association, tells a story of one Idaho dairy worker who said he and his wife avoided going out together, because if one was picked up by immigration authorities, they wanted to make sure the other could stay in Idaho to care for their children.

"They're not immersed in society, and that's not good for society as a whole," he said. "It's important to remember how important the immigrant labor force is to the economy of Idaho."

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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