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Idaho Agriculture, Dairy Groups Call for Immigration Reform in Hostile Political Climate

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- L-R: Braden Jensen of the Idaho Farm Bureau's Governmental Affairs Division, Idaho Dairymen's Association Executive Director Bob Naerebout and Pastor Marc Schlegel-Preheim of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • L-R: Braden Jensen of the Idaho Farm Bureau's Governmental Affairs Division, Idaho Dairymen's Association Executive Director Bob Naerebout and Pastor Marc Schlegel-Preheim of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship.
Agriculture and related industries are unthinkable in Idaho without immigrant labor.

That was the tone of a Tuesday morning presser in which representatives of agricultural interests and the faith community made their annual call for immigration reform at the Idaho Farm Bureau. This year's plea, however, came as tensions over the issue—both in Idaho and the U.S. generally—are unusually high.

"If you wave a wand and the labor's gone, Idaho's economy collapses," said Idaho Dairymen's Association Executive Director Bob Naerebout.

Agriculture makes up approximately 55 percent of Idaho's economy and a high percentage of its workforce is foreign-born. Naerebout estimated 90-95 percent of dairy industry laborers were not born in the U.S.

"To the best of my knowledge, all of our employees are legal," he said, adding, however, the actual percentage of undocumented laborers working in Idaho agriculture comes closer to the national average—approximately 70 percent.

The solution, Naerebout said, is to strengthen and expand work visa programs that account for both seasonal and non-seasonal labor. According to a survey by the New American Economy, there are almost 42,000 undocumented immigrants in Idaho, including almost 2,000 undocumented entrepreneurs. That's out of a total of approximately 100,000 immigrants in Idaho, who make up 6.3 percent of the total state population and represent a combined spending power of $1.5 billion. Immigrant-owned companies employ 14,616 people.

The call for reform came at a tense political moment for immigration reform advocates. Hours before the presser, The New York Times reported on President Donald Trump's newest set of immigration directives, which include expanding the scope of the term "criminal aliens," publicizing crimes committed by foreign-born suspects, enlisting local law enforcement to perform immigration enforcement and more.

Closer to home, Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell) introduced a bill Feb. 20 that would cut sales tax revenue to Idaho sanctuary cities by up to 50 percent, even though there are currently no sanctuary cities in the Gem State. Chaney told legislators he changed the anti-sanctuary cities bill after conversations with agriculture organizations like the Idaho Dairymen's Association, which would "allow them to remain neutral" politically.

Based on Chaney's testimony, Naerebout said his organization is considering reversing its tacit acceptance of the bill.

"We would never be supportive of the bill, and we're reassessing whether we can remain neutral to the bill," he said.


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