TWIN FALLS — Whether immigration helps or hurts the economy has been a subject of political debate in the United States since the 1800s, and it comes up during arguments about the refugee resettlement program in Twin Falls as well.
The number of jobs in the Magic Valley has been growing in recent years as companies like Chobani and Clif Bar move here. Opponents of the refugee program run at the College of Southern Idaho have sought to connect the program to the labor needs of local companies — namely, that employers are seeking to recruit refugees who fill jobs that would otherwise be taken by native workers, and that refugees drive down wages. They’ve also accused the companies of cashing in on government programs that reward them for hiring refugees.
Chobani, a Greek yogurt manufacturer whose owner is a Kurdish Muslim and that hires hundreds of refugees, has become a particular target. Calls to boycott Chobani are common on anti-refugee resettlement and anti-Islamic websites and social media.
But economists say immigrant labor typically affects the workforce only in the short-term. And incentives for employers are limited and not nearly on the scale as refugee opponents would have you believe.
The labor market is a factor in determining how many refugees are sent to any given town — one of the goals of the program is to get people off government support and working as soon as possible. Essentially, managers of the federal refugee program seek to place refugees in communities where jobs are already available, not where refugees have to compete with native workers for a limited number of jobs.
“There are a lot of factors that are considered in determining what the capacity of a local area might be — the availability of educational opportunities for children, the availability of housing for the specific number of newly arrived refugee families,” said Idaho Office for Refugees Director Jan Reeves. “The availability of employment opportunities is certainly a huge consideration … in determining capacity. I don’t know there’s any particular weight given to specific employers. The general employment climate in a community is what the Department of State is looking at.”
Almost all of the incentives that employers can use to hire refugees are not refugee-specific, but income-based ones that can be used to hire poor Americans as well.
And while the refugee center has built relationships with some employers and helps people find jobs, the labor needs of particular employers is not a factor in determining how many people are resettled here. As Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar put it, it’s not like a company in Twin Falls can call Washington, D.C., and ask them to send more refugees.
“The refugee resettlement program sort of happens, and a component of that is that these folks have to have jobs,” said Barigar, who is also head of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
In the past 12 months, Reeves said, 598 refugees have entered the Idaho workforce — 364 in Boise, 234 in Twin Falls, at an average wage of $9.21 an hour for those working full-time, with a range from $7.25 to $20 an hour.
ZeZe Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, said that 224 refugees have arrived in Twin Falls from October 2015 to earlier this month, and during that period CSI has had 208 job placements in all fields and businesses such as production lines, retail, dairy, and with employers including Jerome Cheese Co., ConAgra, Sizzler, C3, Hampton Inn, Everton Mattress, and even in a barber shop.
Two people were hired within two weeks of arrival “because they needed someone right away,” he said.
Reeves is aware incentives for employers to hire low-income people that some companies use when hiring refugees. But his office doesn’t have any involvement. One of the goals of the program, he said, is to get refugees working as quickly as possible so they have their own income, and most of them “enter employment without any kind of training or incentive offered to the employer. It’s pretty much, people are applying for jobs just like anyone else would in the community, and the employer makes the hiring decision.”
Rwasama said the college does not offer any incentives for employers to hire refugees, but it does work with them. Usually, he said, a business will call the center and CSI will try to match a refugee with an employer.
From an employer standpoint, Rwasama said, it’s a good move because in hiring “They look at, are they going to stay?” And refugees often will, without many options available to them.
“The employers are actually begging us to provide the workforce,” he said.
Refugees have to accept the first job offered to them, Rwasama said, and some take two jobs. He doesn’t believe incentives are needed, because with the low unemployment rate businesses are looking for whoever they can, and quickly.
Tax incentives and training programs do exist that encourage employers to hire refugees, as the Idaho Office for Refugees and the Agency for New Americans advertise on their websites, although none of them, except for a small amount of training money the IOR has, are refugee-specific. One is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a federal income tax credit that gives employers a break for hiring members of a targeted group, such as veterans, poor people receiving federal benefits, and ex-felons.
Refugees are not a targeted group. According to data from the Idaho Department of Labor, the credit is most commonly used by employers who are hiring food stamp recipients. Out of 3,278 people in the Magic Valley’s eight counties for whom businesses were certified to receive the credit since Jan. 1, 2009, 76 percent were approved because they were on food stamps. The number of employees hired using it could be lower, the DOL said in response to a records request, since the department doesn’t keep track of whether an employee is retained long enough for the employer to receive the credit. The DOL said 485 employers in the Magic Valley have applied for the credit in that seven-year period, but said the names of the companies were exempt from release as “employment security information.”
Some refugees fall into this group — almost 3 percent of food stamp recipients in Twin Falls County, or 439 people, were refugees in 2015, according to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and another 5 percent, or 820, were lawful permanent residents — but the same tax credit would also incentivize hiring an American-born person who is on food stamps, of whom there were almost 14,200 in Twin Falls County in 2015.
There are also the Work Experience and On-the-Job Training programs, employment programs authorized by federal law and administered by the Idaho Department of Labor, and a small percentage of the refugees resettled in Idaho have benefited from these programs. According to numbers provided by the DOL, three on-the-job training participants and 42 work experience participants over the past seven years have been refugees, although this could be an under count since reporting whether you’re a refugee is voluntary and not required for participation.
The Idaho Office of Refugees has a small amount of funding it can use for job training. Over the past two years, it has spent $15,000 on job training for five refugees, Reeves said.
“We do have some refugee-specific funding that we can utilize for that purpose,” Reeves said. “Again, it’s a very few people over the course of a year that can access for that, because we do not have (a lot of) money for that purpose.”
Eric Stuen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Idaho, said immigration can drive down wages for lower skilled native-born workers who are competing for the same jobs, if there are enough immigrants to affect the labor market substantially, since more people looking for jobs can drive down the pay for which people are willing to work. But, he said, the effect is usually temporary.
“When immigrants move into a country, there’s more labor market competition, more supply of labor, (and) this does have a downward effect on wages,” Stuen said. “But it’s usually found to be a fairly temporary effect. The reason is, the economy allocates capital into those sectors people are working in to create more jobs, and that increases demand for labor as well. Immigration, it can, it usually does reduce wages in the short term, we’re talking two, three years, but in the long run, it doesn’t impact wages.”
Barigar said he doesn’t think wages are lower than they would be otherwise due to immigration, pointing to the low unemployment rate — it was 3.3 percent in the Twin Falls area in July, compared with 3.8 percent statewide and 4.9 percent nationally — and anecdotal evidence that local employers have been raising pay to get qualified applicants.
“I’ve seen no evidence of that,” Barigar said. “In all honesty, I can’t even follow that logic. The premise of that is that, if we were rehiring people who already lived here, we would have to pay them more. That just defies logic to me. Employers, whether they’re food processors, manufacturers, or fast food restaurants, are hiring people based upon skills to get the job done. And our labor pool, honestly, is pretty shallow here right now.”
Chobani owner Hamdi Ulukaya, who was born in Turkey, has been heavily involved in efforts to help refugees in the Middle East and worldwide. In January, Ulukaya wrote a column calling on his fellow business leaders to work with him and support his Tent foundation, which is dedicated to helping refugees. A number of right-wing blogs reported this as a call to bring more Muslims into the United States, and have sought to draw a direct line between the government bringing refugees into the U.S. and Ulukaya’s employing them at his factories.
Chobani declined to answer questions for this story. According to a Financial Times article that came out in January, about 30 percent of Chobani’s employees worldwide, or 600 people, are refugees.
City Councilman Don Hall, who was mayor when the city helped to put together the deal drawing Chobani to town, said the subject of refugees never came up during the talks.
“We were just blessed to have Chobani come here,” Hall said. “It was during the time the recession had hit, and we were looking for good-quality employment opportunities for our citizens, period.”