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NM economy stakes stamina on immigrants

mb00_jd_27mar_immigrationALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Immigrant labor is like bread and butter to the New Mexico economy.

Without it, according to economists and business owners, key industries – including oil and gas, agriculture, construction, and hotel and restaurant operations – would face major hurdles to keep the wheels turning.

“Without immigrants, our labor force would essentially stop growing, making it very difficult to increase our gross domestic product,” said New Mexico State University economist Jim Peach. “I understand the desire to control our borders but, if you disrupt the ecosystem, there are going to be bad consequences.”

Many believe the strong enforcement against undocumented workers expected under the new administration of President Donald Trump would free up more jobs for U.S. workers. But that’s not necessarily the case, Peach said.

“If the Trump administration removes a lot of these people, it would not necessarily generate jobs for native-born New Mexicans because a lot of these are low-wage occupations that are not very attractive,” he said. “In addition, foreign-born workers pay taxes like everyone else and generate income. That’s a big deal for the state economy, even with immigrants making up less than 10 percent of the labor force.”

Some economic sectors would be hit particularly hard. Food crops, dairy operations, and oil and gas production would be especially vulnerable.

“Without the foreign-born labor pool, agriculture would pretty much collapse,” said Al Squire, a dairy producer in Hagerman. “It would impact everyone’s operations. If you take 5 to 10 percent of the workforce out of the dairy industry’s labor pool, that’s huge.”

Immigrants occupy more than half of the jobs in oil and gas in southeastern New Mexico, during both boom and bust cycles.

“They’re in all areas of operation, from management to hauling and roustabout,” said Gregg Fulfer, former Lea County commissioner and owner of the Fulfer Oil and Cattle Co. in Jal. “The culture is pretty well ingrained at all levels.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 197,000 people, or just under 10 percent of New Mexico residents, are foreign-born immigrants. That includes about 72,000 naturalized U.S. citizens.

The total undocumented population is unknown. But the Pew Research Center estimates about 85,000 people – more than 90 percent of them from Mexico – illegally resided here as of 2014. That represents about 4 percent of the total state population, giving New Mexico one of the top ten highest ratios for undocumented immigrants nationwide.

Employers from all industries say they strive to hire only immigrants with legal documents to work here. And everyone supports efforts to deport criminals, particularly dangerous felons.

But most say they want comprehensive immigration reform that would allow businesses to legally hire foreigners willing to take the jobs that they can’t otherwise fill with native-born citizens. That could include new guest worker visas for agriculture and other industries, or novel programs for employers to sponsor immigrants.

“The pendulum may have swung too far to the right, although at other times it’s swung too far to the left,” said James Johnson of W.R. Johnson and Sons farm west of Columbus. “It needs to swing back to the midpoint, to a more neutral position.”