The Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric and proposals potentially pose a crippling blow to the state’s agriculture industry and overall economy, agriculture leaders said Tuesday.
“The economic vitality of rural Idaho stands on the shoulders of foreign-born laborers,” said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which estimates those workers make up more than 85 percent of the state’s 8,300 dairy employees.
Naerebout and others at an Idaho Farm Bureau news conference Tuesday touted a new national study that gauges the economic impact of immigrants in each state. In its Idaho breakdown, New American Economy notes that Idaho’s immigrant population — around 103,000 — grew by 15.1 percent between 2010 and 2014, and that Hispanics, the state’s largest immigrant group, represent $1.1 billion in annual income and paid $84.6 million in taxes in 2014.
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Marc Schlegel-Preheim, pastor of the Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship, said anti-immigrant rhetoric plays on fears, such as a drain on U.S. resources, that are not borne out by reality.
Idaho’s immigrant workforce “is not an undue burden on our support systems,” Schlegel-Preheim said. “They’re actually a benefit to those.”
U.S.-born workers generally steer away from jobs in Idaho’s fields and dairies, and low unemployment rates exacerbate the situation by making it easier for many to find “less strenuous and labor-intensive jobs that are not found in production agriculture,” said Farm Bureau government affairs representative Braden Jensen.
He, Naerebout and Schlegel-Preheim urged Congress to work toward comprehensive immigration reform that, among other things, would enable foreign-born workers to stay in their jobs legally. The existing guest-worker visa program is a dauntingly slow process and only applies to seasonal workers, Jensen said, which makes it inapplicable for year-round operations including dairies.
Dairies represent about a third of Idaho’s total agribusiness sector and 5 percent of the state’s total economy, Naerebout said.
The industry is in the middle of a renewed push for immigration reform, one oft-complicated by its reliance on undocumented workers.
“To the best of our knowledge, all of our employees are documented,” Naerebout said, stressing that agribusiness employers can’t effectively determine if offered documentation is authentic.
But a 2012 University of Idaho study found that 50 percent of Idaho’s foreign-born workers are undocumented. And Naerebout Tuesday noted that a national study indicates 70 percent of foreign-born agricultural workers cannot provide acceptable legal documentation. It is reasonable, he said, to assume Idaho is basically in line with that national trend.
Much of the clamor about illegal immigration focuses on criminals. But Naerebout said that focus should be limited to those who commit violent crime, not those who are criminals because they present fraudulent documentation in order to get a job. Idaho’s foreign-born dairy workers make up a skilled labor force that is trained and invaluable to the industry, he said.
Mass deportation is a fiscally irresponsible approach that would strangle agribusiness and force an increasing reliance on imported food, Naerebout said. Instead, he said, policymakers should pursue an alternative that will “recognizes the value of this labor force and figure out how to ensure legal status.”
Congress came close to improving the situation in 2013, he said, but a bill that passed the Senate died in the House. He urged Idahoans to press U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who serve on the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Immigration reform is the primary focus for the Dairymen’s Association, which aims to gather 10,000 signatures on a “Labor Shortage Petition” featured on the association’s website.
Agribusiness is watching the Idaho Statehouse, too. Jensen said the Farm Bureau was “totally opposed” to the initial version of a proposed law to punish communities that provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants. But the group may stand neutral on a revised version depending on how it develops. Idaho has no “sanctuary cities.”
“There’s enough fear in the immigrant community right now that any introduction of a bill like that raises red flags,” he said.
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447