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New North Dakota agency looks to bolster workforce through support for immigrants

North Dakota’s Office of Legal Immigration is looking outside America’s borders to fill workforce gaps across the state.

It’s the first time in 90 years North Dakota has had a state-level office focused on recruiting, supporting and retaining immigrant workers.

The Office of Legal Immigration has hired its first employee of a planned two-person team and is gearing up for a statewide study to assess the needs of businesses, municipalities and immigrants throughout the acclimation process, according to Janna Pastir, deputy director of the state Commerce Department’s Work Force Division. The office is intended to help businesses recruit foreign labor, while also creating networks of support for new workers as they integrate into the state. 

The labor market is under notable strain across the country. There are 9.8 million job openings in the U.S. but only 5.9 million unemployed workers, and 1.9 million fewer Americans are working now compared to February 2020, the month before the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to August data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The situation in North Dakota is especially pressing: the Chamber categorizes the state as one of the 11 most severe landscapes, with 37 available workers for every 100 open jobs. 

Pastir said the office is looking to wrap up its informational study next spring, in hopes of presenting clear objectives ahead of the state Legislature’s next session, which begins in January 2025. She said the state is also considering issues such as international student retention and workforce credential transfers, while also acknowledging the obstacles that can come from federal immigration policy. 

One asset is a network of similar state-level offices that exist across the country. Pastir said the members of this network, often dubbed Offices of New Americans in other states, are able to collaborate to tackle issues ranging from federal policies to funding streams. 

“This network of states is able to work together and share things that have worked really well,” Pastir said. “So now that we have an office, we’re able to participate in that network and really learn from our peers.”

The office was created through the bipartisan Senate Bill 2142 sponsored by state Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, in the last legislative session, though the bill’s final iteration was a pared-back version of the approach Mathern first introduced. 

Initially, Mathern also proposed a bill that would have provided financial incentives for immigrants relocating to North Dakota, to the tune of up to $160,000 in forgivable loans through a partner office in the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. Senate Bill 2151 died in the state Senate. 

Still, Mathern said he is hopeful about the office’s implications for the future of the state. The last time North Dakota had a state office focused on immigration was 1933, and the state saw a gradual decline in population from its elimination to the start of the Bakken oil boom in the early 2000s. Reestablishing such an office, he said, is a chance to set up future generations of North Dakota residents for success. 

“We need to think about this process as being our future population,” Mathern said. “So it’s not just a matter of getting workers. It is getting families to populate our state, and for families then to operate our schools, our hospitals — to be a part of our communities.”

Navigating federal immigration policies is a challenging and at times unpredictable experience, according to Bismarck-based immigration lawyer Megan Carranza. And North Dakota’s relative lack of immigration lawyers could impact efforts to recruit new Americans to the state, she said.

The immigration process can take months or even years, which means the state’s workforce is unlikely to see immediate relief after the creation of the office, which will not have immigration attorneys. But long-term, Carranza said, such an office can only serve to bolster the strength and diversity of North Dakota communities. 

After the legal process of immigration is over, new residents will still need to acclimate to the state. It’s in the months and years after a move, when immigrants are looking to get connected to their municipalities, that could define retention in many cases, Carranza said. 

“The best-supported new community members will have support from a variety of networks throughout a community — for example, existing family, but also a variety of businesses and schools and perhaps faith networks and employers who are welcoming,” Carranza said. “I think that’s where we’ll see people who want to put down roots in North Dakota.” 

Source: The Bismarck Tribune