Politicians heeding constituents’ concerns come up against business leaders who say state needs newcomers to keep thriving
Updated Feb. 12, 2016 7:07 p.m. ET
BOISE, Idaho—For decades, refugees have augmented the workforce of this sparsely populated state.
Refugees operate machines at the research-and-development facility for memory chips at Boise-based Micron Technology Inc. About a third of the workers at Chobani Inc.’s yogurt plant in Twin Falls, the nation’s largest, are refugees.
But since terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by people at least inspired by Islamic extremists, there has been a backlash against settling refugees here and elsewhere, particularly from Iraq and Syria. That has created tension between politicians sensitive to their constituents’ concerns and business leaders who say the state needs the newcomers to keep thriving.
“I hope that will go away,” said Tim Komberec, chief executive of Idaho-based Empire Airlines, of anti-refugee rhetoric, at an event convened to tackle the state’s labor shortage. “We need workers in this state.” He said his company values a diverse workforce.
Home to 1.6 million people, Idaho is among the states with the largest number of refugees relative to overall population, having absorbed nearly 30,000 from 53 countries since Vietnamese evacuees first arrived in the 1970s. Since 2008, the state has received about 1,000 refugees annually—mostly from Africa, Asia and the Middle East—out of 70,000 that have been resettled in the country each year. About 70% have been sent to Boise, the capital, with the rest going to Twin Falls, its southern commercial hub. Idaho recently has received refugees from Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan, among others.
“Refugees have become a valuable workforce,” said Bob Naerebout,executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, a lobbying group in the nation’s third-largest dairy producing state.
Still, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is among about two dozen governors, primarily Republicans, who have called for at least a temporary halt to the refugee program over fears that it could allow terrorists to sneak into America.
“I have never seen this much attention in Idaho to refugee resettlement from elected officials or the general public,” said Patrice Haller, assistant director of the Idaho Office of Refugees, which coordinates resettlement in the state. She has been working with refugees since 1998.
President Barack Obama has agreed to take 85,000 people fleeing their homelands, including 10,000 Syrians, in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Alabama and Texas have sued the federal government to stop refugee settlement in the wake of the terror attacks.
Proponents note that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted of any travelers, undergoing background checks, multiple interviews, iris scans and other screening over about 18 months. Opponents say Washington lacks control over the process, which involves the United Nations and U.S. subcontractors, in addition to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Idaho’s unemployment rate of 3.9% stands well below the national rate, and its year-on-year job growth of 4.4% in December was the fastest of any state. But the state says that over the next decade it will experience a widening gap between job growth and the growth of its working-age population. It has a shortage of workers in high-tech, manufacturing and other sectors, and among the transplants to the state are many retirees.
“We have a healthy economy constrained by an aging workforce and skill sets that don’t match employer needs,” said Ken Edmunds,director of the Idaho Department of Labor. “Immigrants and refugees are part of the solution.”
Many refugees have university degrees and often can fill higher-tech jobs. While working at a Wal-Mart for six months, Mudhafar Poules, an Iraqi computer programmer, prepared a resume and brushed up on his English. Last July, he landed an IT position at Boise State University.
In Twin Falls, they have been a diverse and committed part of Chobani’s workforce, a spokesman said. Snack maker Clif Bar & Co. has begun hiring workers, including immigrants, for a state-of-the-art baking facility set to start operating this spring, according to a spokeswoman.
Republican state Rep. Stephen Hartgen praised refugees’ work ethic, saying they have started businesses, toiled in dairies and associated industries, and joined the school board and police force in his district.
But now, he said, “The security concern is real; people are conflicted.”
In early January, a district judge in Idaho sentenced an Uzbek refugee to 25 years in prison for attempting to support a terrorist organization and federal authorities arrested two Iraqi refugees, in Texas and California, on terrorism-related charges.
During a Jan. 13 meeting with directors of the resettlement agencies that operate in Idaho, the governor reported that his office had been receiving a high volume of calls about the issue. At his request, the agencies began providing reports on their resettlement efforts. They expect to receive 1,070 refugees by the end of the fiscal year ending in September.
“The governor’s concerns remain,” a spokesman for Mr. Otter said.
The state remains divided. In mid-January, about 150 people lined a hall at the Idaho Capitol to show support for refugees while about as many gathered inside the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium to hear two guest speakers who criticized the U.S. refugee program and highlighted the jihadist threat.
College student Elia Sherman,standing with her father and two sisters at the Capitol event, said refugees bring diversity to the state. “We want an inclusive community,’’ she said.
Inside the auditorium, Frank Marcos,a retired baseball-league scout, said, “I’m concerned about individuals wanting to do us harm.”
Shortly after the San Bernardino attack, “Hunt Camp?” was spray-painted on the outside of the Twin Falls Islamic Center, an apparent reference to a nearby internment camp where Japanese-Americans were sent during World War II.
Mr. Naerebout of the Dairymen’s Association has begun organizing meetings for business, faith and community leaders concerned about the backlash. A new group called the Magic Valley Refugee Advocates has also formed in response.
From left, Marzia Amiri, a pharmacist from Afghanistan, Atanasio Atanasio, a mechanical engineer from South Sudan, and Emma Lovel, a marketing and business major from El Salvador, attend a careers class at the College of Western Idaho in Boise. PHOTO: KYLE GREEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Opposition to refugees has spread even to pockets of Idaho where there are no refugees or plans to resettle them. In Bonner County along the northern border with Washington, commissioners in December unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a pause in refugee resettlement.
In response, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad drafted a resolution stating that refugees were welcome in the county’s largest town. But following two raucous city-council meetings in which opponents of his effort overwhelmed supporters, he withdrew the resolution.
“When you watch what is going on out there, you can’t help but connect the dots,” said state Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican whose district includes the county. “Terrorists are slipping in.”
Meanwhile, refugees continue filling jobs in Idaho, including Rasha Al-Zaidi, a 33-year-old Iraqi mother of two girls whose family arrived in Boise 18 months ago.
Ms. Al-Zaidi, who had been a hospital pharmacist in Baghdad, received career counseling from a program that helps refugees transfer skills to the U.S. workplace. After three months interning at Ladd Family Pharmacy last year, Ms. Al-Zaidi was hired full time as a pharmacy technician, earning $14 an hour.
Said pharmacy owner Elaine Ladd: “There is a shortage of people with the skills I need; Rasha deserved an opportunity.”
After work, Ms. Al-Zaidi studies for the national exam to become a pharmacist, for which the hourly wage is about $60. “I’m too busy,” she said during a break from compounding drugs. But, “I am so happy.”
Write to Miriam Jordan at email@example.com