Immigrants Make Mark on Oregon's Economy

Sep 12, 2017

Olivia, Jovil, and Eva Galvez
Credit Galvez family

President Trump is proposing cutting legal immigration by half.  The federal government has ramped up arrests of undocumented foreigners.  The dreamers are on hold. Yet in Oregon, immigrants continue to make their mark on the state's economy.

The Oregon pear harvest is labor intensive

"(sound of tractor, ladders, picking....)"

Tractors, ladders. picking by hand, and emptying fifty-pound bags into bins.  At orchards like Jovil Galvez's, you'll hear a lot of Spanish:

"Felipe!...Mande!"

In 1970, Galvez arrived in the Hood River Valley.  He became a citizen, worked in the fields and then started his own pear business:

"Immigrants, like everybody knows--unless some people don't want to recognize this--they're the ones who put the food on the table. Any time we go to the market, all the fresh fruit, I think of the migrants.  And of course we are also thankful for this beautiful country."

Galvez also became a mentor to new arrivals and has worked with Latino youth in Hood River to keep them from dropping out of school.  Most of the 10-thousand  agriculture workers in the Gorge are immigrants--citizens, guest workers, and undocumented.  Mike Doke at the Gorge Fruit Growers Association--says something's different this year:

"We saw a real climate of fear."

Fear of raids and of a lack of workers. Some of the cherry crop went unpicked. While a third of the  agricultural workforce in Oregon is foreign-born, Oregon's 400-thousand immigrants--almost half Latinos a quarter Asian--have a large presence in manufacturing, high tech, services, and construction:

"One thing that isn't often acknowledged is that we have an aging labor force in this state."

Bob Bussel heads UO's Labor Education and Research Center:

""One out of every six Oregonians, as of a few years ago, were over the age of 65, so we need to replenish this labor force."

According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 120-thousand undocumented immigrants here, although Richard Lamountain, with Oregonians for Immigration Refore, or OFIR, thinks there are more:

"Illegal immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens and legal residents."

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested 40-percent more individuals this year, the number of investigations of employers has gone down.  That's why Lamountain's group is considering a ballot measure to force employers to use E-Verify, a system that cross-checks employees' social security numbers with other government data bases. Lamountain discounts the argument that immigrants take jobs that citizens are not interested in:

"There are some fields which are known for having low-paid, very physically arduous jobs.  Food services, construction, building maintenance and groundskeeping. Yet every one of those three fields has well in excess of 80% of its workforce filled by Americans."

But while a restaurant's employees may be 80-percent U.S. citizens, it is the dishwasher--holding a less desirable job--who is likely to be an undocumented immigrant.  And as farmers are starting to see a shortage of immigrant labor, they are not filling the jobs with citizens.  The state farm bureau says many farmers in the Willamette Valley are switching from strawberries and raspberries to crops that can be harvested mechanically, such as blueberries and hazelnuts.  In pear country, Mike Doke says they are looking at a different solution:

"What's happening now is a lot of innovations as far as creating trees that are shorter and more compact with fruit."

OU's Bussel says immigrants also contribute to the economy by freeing up others to work:

"Think about homecare and childcare. On the homecare side, you have the population that is retiring, folks who are going to need higher levels of care, and then you also have younger people who are out in the workforce, often dual earner families, needing childcare, and more and more immigrants do that work."

OFIR's Lamountain points to studies that show undocumented immigrants get more in services than they pay in taxes:

"Illegal immigrants and their children use, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, more than one billion dollars worth of state and local services in Oregon, so they harm the economy."

But that number includes money spent for kids who are citizens.  The National Academy of Sciences says grown children of immigrants pay far more in taxes than they consumer in services.  Which brings us back to our pear grower, Jovil Galvez. Galvez has twin daughters who told him early on that they wanted to work  in health care:

"And I said you know what mijas, daughters, great!"

So Olivia and Eva Galvez headed off to OSU, but not without the reluctance that Olivia says many first generation Latina girls felt:

"There's one part of you who's so close to your family, so close to their culture. You can feel that there's a sense of abandonment of your community if you continue to go to school."

Both girls went to medical school and both became family practice doctors serving rural areas.  The Oregon Medical Association says there is a critical shortage of such physicians.  Jovil was delighted:

"We was so happy, having two daughters, twins, bi-cultural, bi-lingual.  With this to me, they got a big heart."

Olivia now works at a clinic in Salem.  In a way, she thinks she and her sister are an immigrant's contribution to Oregon:

"All of that sacrifice that he had made better be worth it.  I felt like we had to do something that would also contribute to the greater good of society."

Funding for KLCC's  "Borders, Migration, and Belonging" series is provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics and the University of Oregon. Bob Bussel, director of UO's Labor Education and Research Center, is affiliated with the Wayne Morse Center.