BOISE — Hans Nederend, the third-generation owner of Nederend Dairy near Marsing, mostly employs Latino immigrants for a simple reason: Idaho-born workers don’t want the jobs.
Idaho’s worker pool evaporated as the state’s unemployment rate fell to a meager 3.7 percent, causing worker shortages in agriculture as well as hospitality, construction and food manufacturing. But Nederend said the high number of immigrant workers — which the Idaho Dairymen’s Association estimates make up more than 85 percent of the state’s 8,300 dairy employees — is driven by more than economics.
“These are jobs only immigrants will do,” Nederend said. “That’s just a fact.”
Nederend needs more immigrant workers, not fewer, he said. That’s why he and dairy owners across the nation would struggle to meet demand for milk if President Donald Trump makes good on a campaign promise to deport up to 11.3 million undocumented immigrants. He launched a petition distributed by the dairymen’s association with the hope or bringing the industry’s labor plight to Idaho’s Republican lawmakers, Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador in the U.S. House and Jim Risch and Mike Crapo in the Senate. More than 2,400 have signed the petition, which organizers hope spurs the lawmakers to make noise on their behalf in Washington D.C.
“If something on immigration reform doesn’t get done soon, I fear these family businesses that rely on immigrant labor could drastically be affected,” he said.
Idaho farmers and the GOP have been longtime advocates for boosting the nation’s worker visa programs.
Bob Naerebout, executive director of the dairymen’s association, said Idaho’s delegation should voice their constituents’ concerns to the Trump administration and take a leadership role in crafting policy, including year-round worker visas.
“Any border wall needs to have a door in it that allows for legal immigration,” he said. “Our delegation needs to know this is a priority for us and for rural Idaho.”
Nederend said that the industry has had Simpson’s ear, but has had a hard time getting attention from the rest of the delegation. Simpson told the Statesman that immigration reform is needed to protect Idaho farmers’ access to labor.
“Idaho’s agriculture industry relies on a stable guest worker program and like the rest of our immigration system, the status quo isn’t working,” he said.
Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico, has been a leading voice on immigration in Congress, including participating in the bipartisan “Group of Eight” pursuing reform in 2013. Labrador didn’t respond the Statesman’s request for comment, but his website says “fixing America’s broken immigration system is one of my top legislative priorities,” with increasing border security as his first concern.
'Jobs for Robots'
Tony VanderHulst, owner of West Point Farms dairy near Wendell, said the nation must insure farms have access to immigrant labor or risk relying more heavily on foreign trade.
“Without workers, we’ll rely on other countries to import our milk, our vegetables, our fruit,” he said.
Philip Watson, associate professor of agricultural economics at University of Idaho, published a study in 2012 along with colleagues analyzing how foreign workers affect Idaho’s economy. The study estimated that more than 100,000 foreign workers were employed in Idaho in 2010, including about 35,000 undocumented workers.
The study found that losing undocumented workers in Idaho would result in a $900 million loss to the state’s gross domestic product.
Watson said deporting undocumented workers would result in dairies automating their work. “In kicking out foreign-born labor, you would likely not be creating jobs for American workers. You would be creating jobs for robots,” Watson said.
While dairy and other sectors may depend on undocumented workers, Idaho construction isn’t threatened by the prospect of deportations, said Wayne Hammon, CEO of the Idaho Association of General Contractors.
Hammon doesn’t agree that Idaho construction is heavily reliant on immigrant labor, and says foreign-born workers in construction are here legally. To comply with labor regulations, he said, contractors scrutinize employee documentation more than do agriculture employers.
While contractors face a work shortage that has stalled some projects, they need journeyman tradesmen or workers with higher education, not the unskilled labor offered by the immigration workforce, Hammon said.
“We see the solution here at home, not across the border,” Hammon said. “The workers we are looking for are in Idaho’s high schools and community colleges.”
More than money
VandurHulst and Nederend are both descendants of Dutch immigrants. VanderHulst said he doesn’t buy into the narrative that immigrants rely more on taxpayer-supported programs than they add to the economy. His position was supported by a 2016 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The study found that first-generation immigrants cost more to governments per person than native-born citizens. But the study also found that immigrants didn’t take many jobs from those born here, and that immigration has a positive effect on the economy in the long-run.
“My grandfather had nothing,” VanderHulst said. “He worked on a dairy like many immigrants have done and do today. He built a great business. It’s the American Dream.”
VanderHulst said he thinks of many of his longtime immigrant workers as family. He was saddened to hear that an employee’s 7-year-old daughter asked his parents where they would go, since people didn’t like Hispanics anymore.
“That breaks my heart, that a child is afraid,” he said. “Right now, everything is happening so fast. I’m sure the new administration will get it figured out. But they need to sit at the table with us and hear what different industries are up against.”