Significance: Idaho’s limited immigration contrasts dramatically with the immigration rates of other regions in which large numbers of immigrant groups have developed and become ingrained in the local communities. In 2008, 92 percent of the state’s residents were classified as “white.”
Before the United States expanded into the West, the region that would become the state of Idaho was populated by Native Americans belonging to the Bannock, Lamni, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, and Gosiute nations. After the first waves of American settlers moved into the region during the early part of the nineteenth century, new immigration into Idaho slowed down considerably. The reasons for Idaho’s relative lack of immigration are many. The most prominent reasons include the state’s lack of both a dominant agricultural base that attracts farmworkers and major urban centers that provide employment opportunities in service industries and jobs for unskilled labor.
Most immigrants who entered Idaho after it became a U.S. state in 1890 were farmers who were able to take advantage of the region’s nitrogen-rich soil, which made possible rapid crop cultivation. Limited numbers of new immigrants from Germany, England, and Russia did arrive during the nineteenth century. Some found employment in the mining and logging industries; however, many of these immigrants did not remain in the state. They instead tended to move on to California, Alaska, and Canada. Those who did remain in Idaho typically transitioned into the lucrative agricultural farming and ranching industries. Idaho’s African American population before the turn of the twentieth century never exceeded five hundred persons, and the numbers of Asian Americans were similar.
During the twentieth century, Idaho remained a secondary destination for new immigrants. As late as 1940, the state registered only 5,855 foreign-born residents. The majority of Idaho’s residents had relocated from eastern regions of the United States, particularly Missouri and Iowa. However, foreign immigration remained limited because of limited employment opportunities within the state, which were due to the lack of the types of heavy industries that needed large labor pools.
The only significant immigrant groups to move into the region during the early twentieth century were Canadian farmers from the neighboring province of Alberta and a very small number of people fromthe Basque region of Spain. The Basques—who never exceeded more than 1,000 people—typically worked as sheepherders in Idaho’s hills and as general laborers for both the fledgling logging and mining industries. Many of these Spanish settlers came fromthe Spanish province of Bizkala. The presence of this minority population continues to be evident in Idaho’s Basque restaurants and in an annual Basque festival held in Boise.
During the twenty-first century, Idaho saw a dramatic growth in population that made it one of the fastest-growing states in the union. Most new residents came from neighboring states, including a significant number from California who were attracted to Idaho’s climate, employment opportunities in the technology sector, and its relatively low cost of living. Consequently, the state experienced an annual population growth of more than 13 percent between 2000 and 2006. Among these new Idaho residents were a growing number of Hispanic residents, who constituted about 10 percent of the state’s population by 2009. Most of these immigrants settled in and around Boise and Twin Falls, both of which have Spanish-language media outlets.
Despite these changes, immigration into Idaho has remained limited. This may be in part due to Idaho’s reputation as a region that is unwelcoming of various minority or ethnic groups. This image reached a level of national notoriety during the 1990’s with the highly visible actions of white-power groups, such as the Aryan Nations, and numerous highly publicized confrontations between armed militia groups and isolationists and federal lawenforcement agencies.
Robert D. Mitchell
See also: Chinese immigrants; Economic opportunities; Employment; History of immigration after 1891; Italian immigrants; Labor unions; Montana; Railroads; Utah.