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Maze of Myths: Business Leaders Push Political Leaders on Immigration

As the immigration debate drags on, industry advocates for reform

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Immigration equals big business at El Centro bank in Nampa.

Latin radio hits mingle in the background as agents and tellers welcome immigrant farm hands and factory workers with a familiar, "Hola! ¿Como estas?" Some customers hold Green Cards; from time to time El Centro staff celebrates with cheers and congratulations when a longtime client no longer calls him or herself an aspiring American but a Nuevo Americano de los Estados Unidos.

"It was like a weight lifted off of his shoulders. He felt like he could go out in public," El Centro owner David Cahoon said of a client who had earned citizenship after decades in limbo.

"He can go back to Peru to see his family now," Cahoon said.

But many more El Centro clients still don't have the papers that could pave the way to the American dream.

"They come in, working two jobs for terrible wages. They are really hard workers," Cahoon added.

Clients often stream in from neighboring rural communities, many come straight from a sunrise-to-sunset day of work at nearby fields and, by layering one low-paying job on top of another, they end up with a little cash to spend. They're using those resources to open bank accounts, buy policies and fuel business growth at the Nampa one-stop shop for tax filings, insurance and loans, where Cahoon brokers financing for almost anything.

"We used to have tons of people who wanted to buy homes, but we couldn't help them. It was hard for me to get loans for them because they didn't have papers. ... There's this misconception that they're here, draining resources and not paying taxes," he said.

Cahoon said an average business day at El Centro unfolds as a kind of myth busters in the immigration reform debate. It's a debate that Idaho industry leaders are trying to slice through by revamping federal law to open borders for more farm laborers and expanding economic benefits that would make it easier for undocumented immigrant workers to earn a pathway to citizenship. While Idaho politicians in Washington, D.C., hold a firm position on keeping borders closed for national security, other arguments hinge on rhetoric that paints new and aspiring Americans as dependents of society, draining social resources, skirting tax laws and cashing in on public assistance programs.

It's a political maelstrom that Idaho's business movers and shakers dove into, saying the names and numbers behind immigration tell a much different story: Immigrants--both documented and undocumented--help drive the national economy and are vital to Idaho's agricultural industries.

"This is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue. This is not a race issue. This is an economic issue," said Alex LaBeau, executive director of the Idaho Association for Commerce and Industry.

The No. 1 Issue

"Go out to these dairies in Kuna--that's where our clients are from. [Employers] don't want to come forward and say, 'We have all of these undocumented people working for us.' There are a lot more undocumented workers in this country than the numbers show," Cahoon said of the more than 11 million people that the Pew Hispanic Center estimates are living and working in the United States without papers.

El Centro's clientele boosts a bottom line that represents what social science research has told us for decades: Immigrants are building lives and building businesses.

That bottom line weighs against the Idaho congressional delegation's reluctance to pursue measures spelled out by the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate earlier this summer. The bill stalled in the House, where it met opposition from hardline conservatives who refused to consider any legislation that eases a path to citizenship, and has since been shelved as a Tea Party-backed standoff over the roll out of Obamacare led to a partial government shutdown Oct. 1.

While proponents of the measure say passage could boost the economy, unite families and extend civil liberties to workers currently living in the shadows, opponents see the bill as a ticket to amnesty and a way to open the nation's borders to would-be terrorists.

When civil rights advocates lined the Statehouse steps this summer, calling on Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador to help lift the shadow hanging over the nation's undocumented immigrants, they were flanked by poster board-sized photographs depicting faces that were young, old, light-skinned and dark-skinned. While the faces, all of them undocumented immigrants, appealed to the crowd gathered at the state capitol, Idaho's business leaders made another kind of appeal at the nation's capitol.

Wrapped in the hotly charged political debate surrounding immigration reform lies an issue that industry leaders say should have nothing to do with partisan politics: Idaho economic growth.

"Immigration reform is the No. 1 issue for the dairy industry nationwide," said Brent Olmstead, executive director of the Milk Producers of Idaho. Idaho's dairy sector, Olmstead added, has quickly risen to become a top milk producer--ranked second in the 12 Western states and third in the nation, according to the Idaho Farm Bureau--and the state's economy depends on the ready pool of workers that a pathway to citizenship could provide.

"[Milk production] is a very labor intensive industry and it's difficult to find workers," he said.

Dairy jobs, which number about 22,700 in Idaho, typically pay about $12 an hour and most come with benefits. The pay falls slightly below a living wage for a single person and often demands a willingness to live in Idaho's rural communities. Olmstead said it's not a job relocation most people are willing to make--even during an economic downturn that had unemployment rates topping 10 percent. Not so with immigrant workers.

"[Immigrants] appreciate the job," Olmstead said.

The Milk Producers of Idaho usually keeps its influence behind the scenes at the Statehouse and on the Hill in Washington, D.C., but in an unusual move, the industry group this summer adopted a strategy more often used by progressive social justice advocates--placing its lobbying efforts before the people by issuing a press release calling on Idaho members of Congress to pass immigration reform for the sake of the state's livelihood.

The June press release praised the U.S. Senate's bipartisan passage of S. 744--the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, or more simply, the Immigration Reform Act--noting that approval of the legislation would help Idaho's largest agricultural industry grow and increase productivity.

In a statement usually reserved for behind closed doors, the Milk Producers quickly turned that praise to censure, aimed specifically at Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo.

"We are disappointed that Idaho's two senators chose to not join in the bipartisan effort to fix the current immigration system," Olmstead stated in the press release. "We have been and will continue to work with the Idaho delegation in the House to keep the current momentum on immigration reform going."

Such a public rebuke from an industry group representing one of the state's biggest industries raised eyebrows among Idaho politics watchers.

"It's unusual to come out and say, 'We're going to continue to work with you,' but at the same time they're saying, 'We're disappointed.' To me, it's a signal to the delegation, saying, 'Consider us more closely,'" said Greg Hill, professor of public policy at Boise State University.

Senate Bill 744 legislates provisions for experienced workers already residing in the country to earn citizenship by meeting certain requirements, and opens the doors for additional workers to enter the country with an agriculture visa. The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 68-32 and now rests in legislative limbo with the House.

While Hill sees little political consequence from the Milk Producers' censure, it illustrates where political lines have been drawn in the debate. For Labrador, though, those lines get blurry.

"Rep. [Raul] Labrador seems to be able to say essentially whatever he wants and he'll still get support," Hill said.

As a former member of the "Gang of Eight" that's shaping immigration policy and an experienced voice on immigration issues, Labrador holds some sway in shaping the direction of reform. A former immigration attorney who once helped keep aspiring citizens in the country, Labrador didn't respond to Boise Weekly's request for an in-depth interview or comment, but doesn't shy away from the microphone--appearing in a slew of national news broadcasts surrounding the Senate vote this summer.

While Labrador supports a guest worker program--but not a pathway to citizenship--he holds a firm position that undocumented workers must return to their country of origin and has called for tighter border security.

"In order for us to have real immigration reform, our top priority needs to be to first secure our nation's borders and start enforcing the immigration laws already enacted. To do so we must give our law enforcement officials the resources they need to enforce the laws on the books and secure our borders," Labrador wrote in a campaign-issues statement on his website.

Sens. Crapo and Risch shared similar views after their nay votes on the Reform Bill, issuing a joint press statement that called the legislation flawed and noted that while the nation needs immigration reform, Senate Bill 744 isn't the path to change.

"This legislation on immigration reform is just a political Band-Aid that does nothing to solve the long-term problem of illegal immigration and it commits U.S. taxpayers to turn over their hard-earned money to someone who is not a citizen," Risch stated in the release.

Positions look a little different in Idaho. The Gem State's business interests keep cozy ties with the state political elite, and that helps keep immigration and restrictive immigration laws off of state lawmakers' political agendas, Hill said.

Olmstead said Milk Producers of Idaho don't make campaign donations to federal candidates because of the additional accounting and paperwork that's required for congressional contributions--MPI simply don't have the staff fulfill those requirements. But the organization does fund state and local campaigns and, while the industry group has boosted donations to Democrats in recent years, Olmstead said it's not a matter of blue or red when it comes to writing a check.

"We've always contributed to individuals and not parties," Olmstead said. "Candidates are much more likely to get contributions from our PAC if they support business and agriculture."

Punitive laws targeting immigrants don't make good business sense, Hill said, and in the business-friendly state of Idaho, the bottom line trumps just about anything else.

"It's an issue people don't want to talk about. You don't hear Gov. [C.L. "Butch"] Otter talking about immigration. In Idaho, economics is more important than immigration [legislation]," Hill said.

In the nation's capital, politics watchers see a now-or-never path for Senate Bill 744--and with the federal government now in partial shutdown and a fight over the debt ceiling all but assured, the bill's fate leans toward "never." Congress can pass the bill before the session adjourns or let it linger and likely die with an unlikely resurrection during the forthcoming campaign season, when hot-button issues like immigration can make or break a shaky run for office.

But the immigration debate is anything but black-and-white: Ingrained political ideologies and an entrenched mythology sometimes leave individuals warring with themselves over where they stand on the issue.

"You might be fiercely conservative and believe in the rule of the law but you might also be a business owner and rely on [immigrant] labor," Hill said.

Businesses say it's time to let myths about immigration die and the numbers do the talking.

"The reality is that our country was built on immigration. It will succeed based on immigration," said LaBeau, with IACI. "We need this reform and [Congress] needs to stop playing politics."

That's not likely to happen anytime soon, and local immigration attorneys are on a "wait-and-see" basis with clients and prospective labor leaders while political sound bites paint a perplexing picture.

Labrador eschews local press requests for comment but became a media darling following the Senate's vote on immigration reform in June, spelling out an elusive position on immigration. Labrador often confounds expectations--he's risen as one of the GOP's most formidable voices in immigration reform, yet he's not afraid to challenge Republican leadership. And the Puerto Rico-born immigration attorney, who often answers constituents' questions in both accented English and Spanish, has told reporters that he doesn't fully support the bill before Congress but that he isn't walking away from pushing forward some kind of reform.

"We have a broken system and I worked in the system for 15 years. I saw families broken up. ... We can't allow the immigration system to stay this way," he told the Spokesman-Review.

Contradicting Republican leadership is one thing, but Labrador often seems to contradict himself. While he walked away from the bipartisan Group of Eight and promised to craft some kind of reform, his comments are both sympathetic toward reform advocates but critical of what's been brought to the table.

Political wavering could spell a dead end for what's on the table now and Labrador recently told American Spanish-language broadcast company Univision that he doesn't expect a reform bill to come out of this congressional session--a stall that could put any kind of change on the back burner until after the 2014 elections.

Shaky politics could spell shaky economics and a shady future for those who say reform can't come soon enough.

'IF YOU TREAT THEM RIGHT, THEY'LL SEND YOU THEIR COUSINS'

Cahoon helps a large client base--even the ones without a Social Security number--fill out income tax forms and pay their share into the system. They pony up to Uncle Sam, Cahoon said, even when an absent Social Security number tells Uncle Sam that they don't exist.

"The immigrant community has historically been an asset to the nation when it comes to the economy," said Leo Morales, communication director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. "Immigrants of course pay sales taxes when they're out shopping. They pay property taxes as homeowners and they pay income taxes."

Still, Morales said, "Immigrant workers that are undocumented, those that are aspiring Americans, they really are living in the shadows."

Those shadows prevent immigrants from becoming fully participating members of society, he said. But when they do emerge, businesses feel their impact.

While they live in the shadowsresearch finds that their everyday contributions make them an asset to the nation's bottom line. Collectively, undocumented immigrants pay more than $10.6 billion to the nation's tax base, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, and for every car insurance policy Cahoon sells or tax form he pushes through the system, he sees his business grow.

"They are very loyal customers. If you treat them right, they'll send you their cousins," Cahoon said.

Myth: Immigrants are a drain on society

The voices of business and Idaho's agriculture industry have thick layers of myth to slice through when it comes to immigration reform. The Milk Producers of Idaho press release chastising Crapo and Risch came on the heels of a swarm of press releases that painted immigrants as bad for the nation's bottom line.

Press releases that flood reporters' in-boxes from The Center for Immigration Studies yield headlines that call the roughly 12 million undocumented Americans, "alien."

"Illegal Aliens a Drain on U.S. Taxpayers, Report Says," screamed one headline on a pseudo-news site that picks up spin from the Center, which bills itself as "Low-Immigration, Pro-Immigrant."

"Illegal aliens are largely poor and uneducated and drain the welfare and public education systems, according to a survey from the Center for Immigration Studies," wrote one New American blogger who pens a body of anti-Muslim, pro-gender segregation and homophobic posts. Such individual headlines may garner a couple hundred Facebook likes and tweets, but collectively, they flood cyberspace.

The immigrants that the New American and other agenda-driven anti-immigrant groups tout as "aliens"--contributing to the demise of American culture, economic prosperity and freedom--are hardly strange, foreign, alien or even out of this world, immigrant advocates say.

"The reality is that immigrant workers are folks just like you and I," Morales said. "They are working hard to provide for themselves and their family. And besides work, they are part of the community. Their children are part of the basketball team. They're on the football team, they're cheerleaders. They are community members who in general have been integrated into the community for a while."

Economic drain blame is hardly a new game in the immigration debate, but one that fuels public sentiment--contributing to the perception among 39 percent of Californians that their jobs are now in the hands of foreign-born workers and helping divide positions on immigration reform almost entirely along political lines.

"Regrettably, the noble and productive history of immigration has been overshadowed by the political and economic consequences of illegal immigration," Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's spokesperson, Nikki Watts, said. "That has to change, not just for the security of our nation, but also to free up many sectors of the economy that are suffering under this current system."

"Business is not liberal or conservative," LaBeau said. "We're about business and it's about dealing with the reality of economics."

A body of research shows that undocumented immigrants are a benefit to society over many years, but one area where they do pose a fiscal burden is with public school enrollment--a use of taxpayer dollars that parallels native-born Americans. Undocumented workers don't qualify for welfare benefits and, according to immigration reform advocates, they avoid using other services at all costs--including emergency rooms--out of fear of deportation.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report estimates that immigrant labor will lead to long-term economic gain in the gross domestic product and a reduction of the national deficit. If passed, the Senate Immigration Reform Bill could increase GDP 5.4 percent, increase wages by 0.5 percent and decrease the federal deficit $700 billion by 2033, according to CBO. The report notes gains in worker productivity, an increase in employment and enhanced capital investment. In short, the agency reports, "S. 744 would boost economic output."

It's those numbers that prompt the Milk Producers of Idaho and immigration reform advocates to reach across the aisle and bridge the partisan divide with a reminder that importing labor and offering a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living and working in the country equals profit.

No less than anti-tax conservative operator Grover Norquist stopped in Boise earlier this year delivering that message to his right-wing compatriots: Immigration reform makes sense--business sense, he told the City Club of Boise in June.

"More people [have] made us wealthier, higher-income, more innovative. ... The economics of this is clearer and clearer," Norquist told the Spokesman-Review. "Do you believe people are an asset or a liability? The idea that ... it makes us poorer if somebody comes in the room is not accurate in a free-market economy."

Myth: Mexican immigrants are taking away all of our jobs

Some of the photographs of aspiring Americans that stood at the Idaho Statehouse this summer wore smiles and looked at the camera through dark eyes and sun-hardened skin. They were young, old, everywhere in between and, for many, the United States is the only home they know.

If you attend an immigration reform rally, you'll likely hear Spanish spoken between tired rural laborers. You'll also meet undocumented students facing a future in limbo and you may even find yourself standing next to a fair-skinned European transplant with five university degrees, a mortgage and tenure-track academic career.

"Immigrants in general have this hunger to succeed. Immigrants are coming from a different country to this nation for a new opportunity and life. So there's this natural hunger to succeed. They are some of our best and brightest and most motivated individuals. And what's holding them back is a broken system," Morales said.

Boise State University student Veronica Martinez aspires to become an immigration attorney but doesn't need to pass a bar exam to see the impact of the current system on her peers. Some of her university cohorts are first-generation college students and some strive to become first-generation Americans. The aspiring Americans working toward a degree can maintain legal status through student visas, but once they graduate, Martinez said their futures remain uncertain.

"A large majority of my peers have been forced to stagnate and run in place because of our current immigration system. Some of the brightest students I have ever known do not currently have the opportunity to shine and demonstrate their full potential," she said.

"Some have gone through this expensive process of obtaining their university education and once they have that education, they face one more barrier. They're extremely knowledgeable in their field of study but they don't have that Social Security number. Their employment is extremely limited," Morales said.

The broken system that plants a wedge between education and earnings creates barriers that Idaho can't afford, business leaders say. Only one out of 10 Idaho high-school graduates goes on to earn a college degree, leaving the state's high-tech enterprises, hospitals and universities to rely on imported talent to remedy the state's brain drain.

"There are just not enough people to fill the need," LaBeau said.

In Idaho, 30 percent of science, technology, engineering and math graduates are foreign-born and we need more, business leaders say.

And the expert, degreed and day laborers aren't the only aspiring Americans boosting the nation's economy. Immigrants are also more likely to open their own businesses, contract with local suppliers and hire local help. One study found that within five years of the 1992 L.A. riots, Asian and Latino entrepreneurs, many them immigrants, led a rebirth of business in the riot-torn areas of Los Angeles. These people invested locally, hired local workers and spent much of their wages in the community.

The numbers make sense to business but industry leaders say immigrants mean more than money. Immigration reform is simply the right thing to do, they say.

"This is an issue that goes way beyond employees. This is a moral issue," said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

Naerebout's call echoes the voices of his colleagues and puts Idaho business on the same soap box where human rights activists have stood for a long time.

"Let's look at the facts," Naerebout said. "We trap people in this country. ... If you're afraid of being deported you're not going to be fully involved in your community."

Local immigration attorneys speak of broken futures, arrests that shuffle the American-born children of immigrants into foster care and the years and sometimes lifetimes that pass before loved ones glimpse each other's faces.

"There's this sense of uncertainty and fear that casts a deep shadow on the lives of immigrants because immigrants know that at any moment they can be stopped by law enforcement or federal agents. Because of the broken immigration system, they live under a cloud of uncertainty about what will happen in their future," Naerebout said. "Freedom and liberty are just precious and some of the best assets we have as human beings. When it comes to issues of immigration, civil rights and civil liberties are definitely trampled on."