Some Idaho employers voice support for refugees, others stay mum

Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, center, at the 2012 grand opening of his company’s 1-million-plus Greek yogurt plant in Twin Falls.
Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, center, at the 2012 grand opening of his company’s 1-million-plus Greek yogurt plant in Twin Falls.

Idaho business reactions to President Donald Trump’s refugee order ranged on Monday from silence to concern for employees and for the potential drain on the availability of talent.

Trump’s executive order Friday temporarily blocked refugees from coming to the U.S. and blocked immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.

One of the strongest statements came from Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya in a letter to employees, including 300 refugees at the company’s big Twin Falls yogurt plant.

Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, said his company will support its employees, including refugees and immigrants from 19 countries.

“This is very personal to me,” Ulukaya said in the letter, obtained by the Idaho Statesman. “As an immigrant who came to this country looking for opportunity, it’s very difficult to think about and imagine what millions of people around the world must be feeling right now. America has always been a symbol of hope, tolerance and diversity — and these are values we must work very hard to uphold.”

Ulukaya said he directed the company’s legal and human resources teams to explore whether any employees or their family members would be affected by the order and to provide “whatever assistance they need.”

“We’ll have their backs every day and every step of the way,” he said.

If it sticks, the order also could put a serious strain on the dairy industry that supplies Chobani.

“When you’re at a 3 percent unemployment level, anything that takes away potential employees can have a negative effect not only for status quo but for future growth,” said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.

Refugees are a “relatively new” source of labor for the dairy industry, he said. In the past two years, one Magic Valley dairy hired enough refugees that they now make up 25 percent of its 50- to 55-person workforce, he said.

Jan Reeves, who heads the Idaho Office for Refugees, said every refugee family that settles in Idaho has at least one family member in the workforce. “Many employers are looking to refugees as a source of labor,” Reeves said.

One technology company with a large Boise presence, HP Inc., also voiced support for refugee and visa employees.

“Our first priority is to identify the affected people we have across the globe and to determine how best to support them,” the company said in a statement. “We are dedicated to diversity and inclusion and have been doing business in 170 countries for over 70 years and look forward to continuing to do so.”

Jay Larsen, president of the Idaho Technology Council, said he was concerned the order might limit or hinder tech workers coming to the U.S. on visas.

“We’re looking into the impacts, but talent is always a big issue for us,” Larsen said.

The Modern Hotel in Boise has 10 refugee employees, mostly from Congo and Burma, as well as workers who immigrated from Mexico.

Owner Elizabeth Tullis said her grandparents owned the original Modern Hotel in Nampa after fleeing from the Basque Country and oppression by the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. She said her refugee and immigrant employees worry about their paths to citizenship even though none is from the seven Middle Eastern countries targeted by the order.

“Staff members are really uncertain and scared about their future in the United States,” Tullis said. “Frankly, I’m concerned for them.”

The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, Micron Technology Inc. and the J.R. Simplot Co. declined to comment on the order.

The order caused consternation in Silicon Valley.

“I share your concerns” about Trump’s immigration order, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a memo to employees obtained by The Associated Press. “It is not a policy we support.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said, “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all.”

Google recalled more than 100 employees who were traveling overseas due to fears that they couldn’t return to the U.S. The company also donated $2 million to organizations supporting refugees that can be matched to up to $2 million in employee donations, USA Today reported.

Elsewhere, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over five years across the 75 countries where the coffee maker operates, according to Fortune magazine. That prompted an effort on Twitter to boycott Starbucks.

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @ZachKyleNews. The Associated Press contributed.