Study: Foreign labor crucial

Capital Press file photo Hops are unloaded at a processing facility near Wilder, Idaho, last August. A University of Idaho study shows that the stateÕs economy would suffer if the supply of foreign-born workers was reduced.

Limiting non-native labor would hurt Idaho's economy

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

BOISE -- A new study has found that reducing Idaho's foreign-born labor supply would have a significant negative economic impact.

The University of Idaho study, funded by the state's dairy industry, found that if the estimated supply of 107,000 foreign workers was decreased by 25 percent, the state would lose 17,300 net jobs and $43 million in state and local tax revenue, and gross state product would fall by $430 million.

"Those are mighty big numbers," said Priscilla Salant, one of four UI agricultural economists who prepared the report.

While some less-educated native-born workers would benefit from a reduction in foreign workers, "the overall economy would pay a significant price," she said.

The study also concluded that a reduction in foreign workers would drive labor costs up, reduce the profitability of firms that use that labor, and total economic output by Idaho business would decline by $1.3 billion or 16 percent.

"It helps confirm that there is a high value to foreign-born labor, not only for the dairy industry but across Idaho," said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, which commissioned the study.

Those results were based on an assumption that native-born and foreign workers with similar education levels would substitute for each other rather easily, an assumption the report admits is very conservative and may be unrealistic.

If that isn't the case, "Then all of those impacts will be increased," Salant said.

The report didn't differentiate between legal and illegal workers.

The study's authors noted that other states have enacted or are considering passing legislation intended to restrict the supply of foreign-born workers.

"If such legislation were passed in Idaho, our analysis shows it would negatively impact the state's economy," the study states.

The IDA commissioned the study because of concerns that efforts at the state or federal level could restrict the supply of foreign-born workers, but Naerebout said the study began with no pre-conceived notions and the industry had no say in its outcome.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson said the study illustrates how important foreign-born workers are to the state and agriculture. And he agreed with the report that native-born workers likely wouldn't take most of the jobs performed by foreign workers.

"We're of the firm opinion that there aren't (native-born workers) who want to do those jobs," he said. "That's why those immigrant workers are here."

Thompson said immigration reform is one of the Farm Bureau's main priorities and agriculture needs "a foreign worker program that works for both the workers and employers."

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