How Chobani yogurt became the target of America's immigration ire

Tension over political controversies, such as refugee resettlement, are leeching into the corporate arena. 

Stuart Ramson/AP/File
Former President Bill Clinton and Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani and the nonprofit Tent Foundation, discuss the role of the private sector in helping refugees at the Clinton Global Initiative Winter Meeting in New York, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. The Tent Foundation was founded to bring innovative approaches into the refugee crisis.

The debate over refugee and immigrant aid in the United States has been one of the most contentious issues of a tense election cycle. The US is bracing to up the number of refugees it will take in next year by 30 percent; at the same time, many Americans have been mobilized by the anti-immigration rhetoric that has pervaded the presidential campaign.

Now, the ire over the refugee question is trickling into yogurt.

Popular yogurt-maker Chobani lately has been the target of racist attacks and calls for a boycott on social media, and of criticism on right-wing websites such as Breitbart. Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani's Turkish immigrant founder, advocates for millions of refugees around the world and hires those who are resettled in the communities where Chobani operates.

Boycott calls on social media have accused Ulukaya of importing Muslims “to Idaho 300 at a time to work in his factory.”

The mayor of Twin Falls, Idaho, where Chobani has a plant, has even received death threats partly because of his support of the company, according to The New York Times.

“It got woven into a narrative that it’s all a cover-up, that we’re all trying to keep the refugees safe so that Chobani has its work force, that I personally am getting money from the Obama administration to help Chobani hire whoever they want, that it’s part of this Islamification of the United States,”  Twin Falls mayor Shawn Barigar told the Times. “It’s crazy.”

The attacks are growing along with Ulukaya's advocacy efforts. Besides hiring refugees, this year the Chobani head founded Tent, an organization that aims to help the more than 65 million people who have fled armed conflict or persecution and now are displaced around the world. The United Nations calls this the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and companies such as a Airbnb, Cisco, Google, and Chipotle have signed on to pitch in with education, employment, and other services.

Ulukaya came to the United States for school in the 1990s, founding Chobani in upstate New York in 2007 with the help of a loan from the US government. Today, Chobani boasts 2,000 employees and $1 billion in revenue. It is also considered one of the most socially responsible of US companies. Ulukaya pays employees above minimum wage, with generous benefits. In April, he gave workers ownership of 10 percent of the company, and more recently announced that all employees, hourly and salaried, would get six weeks of parental leave starting next year.

One-third of Chobani’s workers are refugees from Vietnam, Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The heated backlash against the company from anti-immigration and anti-refugee critics for its efforts is not unique. Impassioned calls for boycotts over corporate positions on controversial issues ranging from same-sex marriage, to gendered bathrooms, and even to presidential candidate choices, are becoming commonplace in today’s fraught political climate.

Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel has been vilified for his support of presidential candidate Donald Trump, with calls for his resignation from Facebook's board and other projects. The founder of Yuengling Brewery, Dick Yuengling, has been threatened with boycotts for endorsing Donald Trump and giving his son Eric Trump a tour of the beer company's Pennsylvania facility.

Bars in Washington, D.C. have ceremoniously removed the Yuengling label from their bar taps, as The Washington Post has reported. Calls for boycott have come even from elected officials like Pennsylvania state representative Brian Sims.

“Supporting Yuengling Brewery, that uses my dollars to bolster a man, and an agenda, that wants to punish me for being a member of the LGBT community and punish the black and brown members of my community for not being white, is something I'm too smart and too grown up to do,” wrote Rep. Sims on Facebook last week. “Goodbye Yuengling and shame on you.”

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