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Undocumented immigrant population in the West has fallen during recession, economist says

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Idaho economist Priscilla Salant doesn't advocate one position over another in the debate over illegal immigration.

Her job, she said, is to tell the story of the numbers, which can tell a different story than the rhetoric.

For instance, some who oppose illegal immigration claim the numbers of foreign-born Hispanics in the Mountain West has radically increased in the past 10 years, which has burdened schools and social service providers.

"Only one third of the Mountain West's Hispanic immigrants moved to the region in the past 10 years," said Salant, speaking Wednesday at the inaugural Mountain West Summit.

"There is no inundation happening at all."

Salant's review of recent census data and research by the Pew Hispanic Center revealed other interesting trends in the states of Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

Most foreign-born Hispanics in the Mountain West are "overwhelmingly of labor force age," she said.

While some undocumented immigrants have children, the significant growth in the numbers of Hispanic children ages 5 to 17 has occurred among native born Latinos.

Foreign-born Hispanics number about 1.5 million in the eight-state region, with about 40 percent of them in Arizona. Across the region, however, their numbers have fallen as the recession has deepened, Salant said.

Salant also has conducted research on the dairy industry in Jerome, Gooding and Twin Falls counties. It sought to determine the impact of immigration on Idaho communities.

The area has experienced a dramatic increase in dairies as California farmers have relocated their operations to the Gem State. There are now more cows than people in some counties, Salant said.

As the industries relocated, workers followed.

The researchers' review of public records and interviews revealed that "dairy workers are not a catalyst to crime," Salant said. Most law enforcement encounters were speeding tickets, she said.

However, researchers did find higher felony rates for Hispanics than non-Hispanics.

The research also revealed that dairy workers' use of local health care systems was not "disproportionate."

Researchers also probed the potential impact to the state if strict immigration enforcement measures were leveled, which has occurred in other states.

"Are native born workers going to take jobs vacated by foreign-born workers because of a policy change" that requires workers to leave the state? Salant asked.

A lower labor supply would result in higher labor costs. However, product costs would also rise.

The bottom line was, "the state economy would take pretty significant hit," she said.

That's been the experience of the state of Georgia, said Paul Bridges, mayor of Uvalda, Ga., population 600.

Since the passage of Georgia's so-called "papers please" enforcement measure, HB87, the state has lost $300 million in agricultural revenues due to shortages of seasonal farm laborers.

Bridges said the law, which is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, has "really created havoc in Georgia."

Even as wages have increased to attract labor, onion and berry farmers found very few takers.

"It doesn't matter what you're paying. You're not going to get people to fill those jobs unless they're doing that kind of work," Bridges said.

Unlike Georgia, which has suffered a significant financial hit from its immigration policy, Utah has taken a measured approach.

"What I'm appreciating with you guys is that you're in front of this issue," Bridges said.

"There's so much I want to say. I'm like a volcano that's about to explode."