Printed on: September 12, 2010

An opportunity to prosper

Jerry Brady
Post Co. president

Immigration helped build America and there's no reason that tradition shouldn't continue for years to come, writes Jerry Brady.

I grew up in an almost all-white world where Hispanics and blacks were few. Japanese-Americans were virtually the only persons of color in Idaho Falls High School and they were high-achievement heroes.

It was white kids and adults who picked or bucked the spuds, worked the combines or moved pipe in the summer. Potato shed workers were still Anglo, which tells you how old I am.

Today, Idaho agriculture would grind to a halt without Hispanics. Many participated in Idaho's housing boom. Mine is hardly the only church with all-Spanish language services, wards or congregations.

Controversy over a new law in Arizona and a proposed Islamic center near ground zero raises the question of whether America has entered another hate cycle in its long love-hate relationship with immigration. Not long ago, I met an elderly Idaho couple who wanted to put every Mexican on freight cars headed south, the way Jews were sent to Auschwitz -- an extreme example, but hardly isolated.

So, what is the state of immigration today? Should those of us who grew up in an all-white Idaho resent these changes? Or might we feel relieved and grateful?

Illegal immigration is falling fast, from 850,000 a year in 2000-05 to less than 300,000 today, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. A large number are leaving the country, in both the Southeast and the Intermountain West. But, of those who remain, a recent University of Idaho report reveals that, typically, almost all the Hispanics in Idaho's dairy industry have families and are legal residents, contrary to popular myth. The same likely holds true for other sectors of agriculture.

Today, Hispanics make up about 10 percent of Idaho's population but only six percent of its buying power. However, in 2009, Hispanic buying power rose 10 times faster than non-Hispanic, growing 3.1 percent compared to .3 percent for everyone else, according to a University of Georgia report. And here's the most startling statistic from another University of Idaho report: in the past nine years, the number of non-Hispanics entering Idaho's schools grew 3 percent while Hispanic growth rose 55 percent.

If resentment is in order, it might be directed at Idaho's job-creation policy. Idaho recruited the dairy industry from California knowing it meant thousands of low-paying jobs attractive only to poor Hispanics. Some are now recruiting the California chicken industry, where the same will hold true. Idaho exempts agriculture from paying some benefits required of other industries.

The growth of Hispanics in the schools, with inevitably lower achievement scores and higher costs for dual-track education, comes directly from Idaho's job policy.

Low-wage jobs -- for Anglos as well -- means higher educational and social costs not borne by the employer. That's the bargain we've made.

So why might we be grateful for the growing Hispanic population? Not only agriculture but also resort communities would founder without them. Over time, they will be making the Social Security tax payments that support older retirees like me.

Economists tell us population growth powers economies, yet the United States' birth rate is now the lowest it has been in 100 years. Who will meet America's basic needs if there are no immigrants?

While many resent immigration (that's happening all over Europe and in Japan as well), well-educated immigrants lead and create many United States companies, creating jobs as never before. This can be increased to the benefit of all. Since the Pilgrims came ashore, America has prospered because of immigrants. Thankfully, that tradition will continue for years to come.