August 9, 2022

Shorter Version -- Labor Shortage, Hiring Immigrants

To counter labor shortages, North Dakota businesses contemplate immigrant options
Concerns over community welcome persist

By Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative 

Businesses across North Dakota are increasingly looking to attract new American immigrants and foreign workers due to challenges filling a wide spectrum of open positions in healthcare, services, manufacturing, agricultural production and child care fields. 

A question looming in the minds of those coming to North Dakota, however, is whether they are wanted or not. In the case of refugees, most do not have a choice in where they end up.

After years of steady arrivals of legal immigrants, resettled refugees and temporary workers to North Dakota, numbers dramatically declined under recent federal immigration tightening, pandemic travel restrictions, and the closing of Lutheran Social Services [LSS] - a nonprofit group that had long facilitated refugee resettlement for the state.  The perception is the state may not be as welcoming as it once was. 

That rapid decline has left businesses in a lurch during a time of historically low unemployment and intense competition for labor both locally and nationally. 

Employers in Burleigh County, for example, now have nearly 3,400 open positions to fill, according to Brian Ritter, President & CEO of the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber, up by around 400 from the year before, and are looking at all options. 

“Utilizing legal immigrant labor is not necessarily a new phenomenon,” Ritter said at an interview in his Bismarck offices. “I think now what you’re seeing simply is the broader business community having to consider utilizing this labor for the first time.”

Numbers drop 

Between 2007 and 2021, official refugee resettlement numbers in North Dakota went from a high of 563 in 2014 to a low of 19 in 2021, according to data provided by the North Dakota Department of Human Services following an information request. 

The most recent settlement has been confined to the Fargo area. Under that program, in 2021 no refugees were resettled in the Bismarck area, and just one settled in Grand Forks.

Had refugee resettlement continued at the rate before 2017 in Grand Forks, estimates are that around 500 more people would have been added to the community, according to the data showing an average of 100 resettlements per year before 2017. 

“That would have been a one percent population growth for the City of Grand Forks,” Becca Cruger, Director of Workforce Development at the Grand Forks Economic Development Corporation.

Closing and opening doors 

In 2019, Burleigh County nearly became the first locality in the country to block refugees under a Trump administration executive order that required states and local governments to give written consent for resettlement. 

While the 3-2 vote in December that year ended up in favor of keeping resettlement, the debate still leaves a chilly memory for some. 

Ranju Dhunghana, a Bhutanese who spent most of the first 11 years of her life in a refugee camp in Nepal before being relocated to Grand Forks in 2009, hardly felt any anti-immigrant sentiment until that time. 

“That’s when I learned there were so many negative comments about refugees,” she said. “I still feel like there’s negativity toward refugees.”

Now a University of North Dakota graduate working in the health care system as an interpreter and nursing assistant, Dhunghana recently took her medical school entrance test in hopes of further advancing her medical career. 

Cynthia Shabb, executive director of Global Friends Coalition, which provides services to refugees and immigrants in Grand Forks, said the lack of acceptance stems from a variety of misperceptions about immigrants “flooding” into the country.

Need for advocates 

Educating the wider public about the experiences of refugees and immigrants who have come to North Dakota could help change some perceptions, said Ivona Todorovic. 

That’s from someone who has gone from being a refugee from the war in Bosnia, to settling in Grand Forks in 1995, to recently being named one of four finalists for the 2023 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Award. 

To help relay the personal experiences of her students to the rest of the student body, Todorovic, who currently teaches in the English Language Learner (ELL) program at Red River High School, develops projects such as assigning seniors to interview those in her program, turning their scattered experiences into stories with common threads. 

“To be honest with you, I embrace Grand Forks, it's my home and I lived here longer than I lived in Bosnia,” she said. “But I never planned to come here, we just lost everything, you know, we had, so that's the thing. The war happened. And I’d say, for about 75 percent of my kids [in the ELL program], it’s the same or a similar thing that happened.” 

For Wendy Sanderson, director of the English learners program at Bismarck Public Schools where 85 languages are spoken by families within the district, among the biggest needs for new immigrants, she said, is having someone that can advocate for them and make them feel welcome. 

“Are we reaching out and loving up these families, and doing whatever we can to make their time in Bismarck - whether they want to stay here or whether they don't - to make it something that is good for them, not only academically, but emotionally, and socially?”  

Rebounds expected 

While full data isn’t yet available for 2022, Uniting for Ukraine, a separate program managed by the Department for Homeland Security has been increasing the numbers of immigrants from the war-ravaged nation in recent months, said Holly Triska-Dally, state refugee coordinator. Relocation has mainly been to the Fargo, Bismarck, and Dickinson areas, she said. 

“This year has been a big shift,” she said. “It's a little tricky to say, but I think there's definitely been a pretty significant geographic expansion of resettlement through the Uniting for Ukraine [program].”

In Bismarck, local group Global Neighbors has been working through Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies, to sponsor Afghan refugee resettlement in the Western half of the state and also assist with Ukrainian resettlement.

The group’s executive director Julie Ramos-Lagos said she has seen increasing interest, especially in smaller towns, to bring in recently settled refugees to fill jobs. Around 60 percent of those being resettled have university degrees or higher-education status, but may lack adequate English skills and degree certifications upon arrival, she said.