TWIN FALLS — Dairy makes up one-third of Idaho’s total agricultural receipts, and 90 percent of those working on dairy farms are foreign-born.
Those were some of the statistics brought up Monday during a City Club of Southern Idaho forum about the impact of immigration in south-central Idaho. Rick Naerebout, the chief executive officer of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, and Dale Layne, Superintendent of the Jerome School District, were panelists.
There’s no federal Visa program that works for the dairy industry, Naerebout told an audience of about 100 education and business leaders, elected officials and community members. The H-2A agricultural Visa is for temporary, seasonal workers, but the dairy industry is year-round.
“The simple answer is we don’t have a single program that works for our dairy workers,” Naerebout said.
That leaves the industry without any way to bring in workers, he said, adding there’s a shortage of employees and it’s a big issue for dairy producers. “The idea that we can recruit American kids to do the jobs is just unrealistic.”
Monday’s forum was moderated by David Adler, president of the nonprofit Alturas Institute, who was a founding member of the Idaho Falls City Club.
The nonpartisan City Club of Southern Idaho launched this fall after a group of community leaders talked for more than a year about the idea. The group promotes community through vibrant dialogue, College of Southern Idaho President Jeff Fox told attendees Monday.
Nationwide, it’s a rare day when immigration isn’t a front-page newspaper article or the lead story on the nightly news, Adler said. The United States is a nation of immigrants, he said, but there are different opinions and intense debate on the topic.
“The rubber meets the road” when talking about the economic impact of immigration, he said.
Here are four of the key topics that arose during Monday’s forum:
Impact on the dairy industry
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association represents about 500 Idaho dairy farms. In total, 40,000 jobs are dependent on Idaho’s dairy industry, and 70 percent of that activity is in the Magic Valley, Naerebout said.
Of those, he said, 40,000 jobs, 8,000 are at the farm level — milking and feeding cows — and 90 percent of those workers are foreign-born.
Naerebout referenced a U.S. Department of Labor survey, which concluded about 46 percent of the agricultural workforce surveyed disclosed they’re undocumented immigrants.
One of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association’s top priorities is seeking a responsible immigration reform policy, Naerebout said.
It would need to address the existing workforce as the first focus, Naerebout said, allowing them a legal avenue to stay in the country and continue working. Also, determining legal status should fall on the federal government — not the employer, he said.
In order for a dialogue about immigration reform to be successful, you can’t just talk economics, he said, but have to bring it to a personal level.
Impact on Jerome schools
After a stint teaching in the Nampa area, Layne arrived in Jerome in 1991 as an elementary school principal. He became superintendent of the Jerome School District — which has about 4,000 students — in 2009.
When he arrived in Jerome, there were about 2,800 students and the community had very few Hispanic workers, Layne said.
The changes in demographics in the years since, he said, are partly due to the agriculture and dairy industries.
By 2011, Jerome had nearly 3,500 students and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of the student body.
Now, Hispanic students make up roughly 50 percent of Jerome’s school enrollment. Some are immigrants, while others are the second or third generation in the United States.
The school district has 690 students considered “limited English proficient.”
It also has 145 migrant students — a number that has dropped over the years, largely due to its definition as a seasonal job, which doesn’t fit the dairy industry, Layne said.
A number of Hispanic students go to Mexico mid-school year — often, around November or December — and some don’t return until after Christmas or even until March, Layne said.
For a first-grader, for example, who is learning English and how to read, “it’s kind of like starting over” when they return to Jerome, he said.
By the time students get to high school, coming and going can mean a loss of class credits, putting teenagers behind and off-track toward graduating.
There’s a large degree of rhetoric and attitudes nationwide and in Idaho that could be characterized as “anti-immigrant,” Adler said. He asked panelists to share their thoughts.
It should probably be an anti-poverty issue instead, Layne said, adding poverty happens regardless of skin color. “That’s what impacts education.”
Naerebout said he hears anti-immigrant rhetoric frequently and he said he thinks it’s often born from a personal bias rather than facts.
It’s important to be careful not to pigeonhole people, he said. He shared with the audience he’s the father in a biracial family and despite his public position, he sometimes wonders if his family is welcome.
People need to stand up for what’s right, he said to audience applause.