BOISE – Immigration as a political issue has sparked plenty of rhetoric in Idaho in recent years, but a new University of Idaho study shines new light on how heavy immigration can really impact rural Idaho communities.
UI’s two-year study found that south-central Idaho’s Hispanic population has grown by 85 percent since 2000, paralleling the dramatic growth in the dairy industry in the region, which employs a large Hispanic work force. That’s brought big economic and social changes to communities in the area, the study found – and they’re mostly positive.
“The dairy industry drove population and economic growth, but it’s going beyond agriculture now,” said UI Professor Priscilla Salant. “What it’s meant for communities here is that communities like Jerome and Gooding, which are farming-dependent, they are bucking a national trend. Three-quarters of those kinds of communities around the country are losing population. … That is not happening in the farming-dependent communities that rely on the dairy industry in the state.”
Those communities have weathered the recession better than other parts of rural Idaho, the study found. It also found that while child poverty levels remain high in the Magic Valley, health care systems have not been overburdened by the increase in dairy workers; crime hasn’t increased; and schools have seen the biggest impacts.
Because the workers are mostly young and many have young children, “The student body is changing from, in many cases, predominantly non-Hispanic to Hispanic,” Salant said. Jerome has seen an 80 percent increase in Hispanic student enrollment since 2000; Wendell, 70 percent; and Gooding, 40 percent. “That means schools need more staff to work with students who are English language learners,” Salant said.
Community leaders welcomed the new study. “Our community has gone through a lot of rapid change and rapid diversity that we haven’t seen before, and any time you get change of this magnitude in such a short period of time, it brings challenges along with it,” said Jerome Police Chief Dan Hall.
The Rev. Ronald Wekerle, priest at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Jerome, called the study’s results “good news.”
“It helped me understand what I was feeling and I think what community members are feeling about the changes that are taking place in our area, and it gave quantifiable statistical data to what’s happening to us as a society,” he said. “The report, if you will, can provide us the foundation upon which we can have an intelligent conversation to come together as a community.”
The study, funded in part by the dairy industry, offered three recommendations: That the dairy industry work toward immigration policy that gives both employers and workers more predictability and security to allow workers to become better integrated in their communities; that the industry work to increase the prosperity of its work force, in part by encouraging workers to file for the earned income tax credit; and that the industry work with the University of Idaho and others to fund a Spanish-speaking community development professional to work on issues for the increasingly diverse community.
Wekerle said, “My experience is that the growing number of Spanish-speaking folks, the Hispanic population, is a gift to our community, but at the same time it is also a tremendous challenge to our community. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do something great.”
Salant said the study’s results could be applicable to other areas of the country where rural communities have seen large increases in foreign-born workers, from agricultural areas in California and Texas to manufacturing-industry changes in the Midwest.
Guv’s surgery went ‘exceptionally well’
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter underwent rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder recently to repair an injury sustained several weeks ago while he was clearing brush on his ranch near Star. “Fortunately it is not as serious as the one I had in February on my right shoulder,” the governor said.
His surgeon, Dr. Michael Curtin of Intermountain Orthopaedics, said the surgery, an outpatient procedure, went “exceptionally well” and should relieve Otter from “a great deal of pain.”
It’s the governor’s fourth surgery since he’s been in office: two shoulder, one hip and one eyelid.
Idaho Reports gets a full hour
Idaho Reports, the weekly legislative program on Idaho Public Television, will be a full hour this year, which is good news for the longest-running legislative program in the West.
The show debuted in 1972. Over the years, it went through various format and name changes, but it was consistently a daily report on the doings of the Idaho Legislature; it took its current name, Idaho Reports, in 1982. A big change came in 1997, when budget cuts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting forced the show to cut back from daily to weekly. The weekly program started off with just a half-hour, but it’s gone up and down. Now, host Thanh Tan has confirmed that this year it’ll be a full hour.
It’s been my pleasure to be among the guests and regular commentators on Idaho Reports over the years, and I’ll be a regular again this year.