North Dakota is the latest state to seek immigrant labor for workforce shortage

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On Monday, North Dakota’s legislature passed a bill to create a “workforce minded” office of legal immigration within its Department of Commerce to help fill workforce gaps in the state.

The bill, which received bipartisan sponsorship, overwhelmingly passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate likely due to increasing labor shortages.

But according to American Immigration Council’s (AIC) Director of State and Local Initiatives, Rich André, SB 2142 is just the first step in addressing the many, complex, immigration problems that have long existed before it was ever introduced.

“There’s so much that goes into immigrant and refugee inclusion [in the workforce],” said André. “And this bill obviously is not going to tackle all of that or even most of it.”

North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern first introduced the bill back in January, during the state’s 68th Legislative Assembly.

“We hear daily […] of our workforce shortage and the drain on our economy when we have potentially up to 60,000 jobs unfilled,” the Democrat said to the state’s Senate Industry and Business committee.

A recent report suggests more than 17,000 jobs are vacant in North Dakota. But according to INFORUM, officials suspect there are thousands more unfilled positions employers have yet to advertise as open.

Shelly Peterson, President of North Dakota Long Term Care Association, testified in favor of the bill during the legislative session in January, citing the worst workforce crisis she has ever seen.

“50 percent of [our] nursing facilities last year stopped admissions [of patients] because we didn’t have sufficient staff,” said Peterson.

She added that 90 percent of their nursing facilities have come to depend on temporary, contract-staffed nurses in 2022 because of this shortage. And it costs them more than their ability to compensate these staff.

“The cost to operate is much higher,” said Peterson. “70 percent of our cost to operate is in our staffing.”

It ultimately led to the closure of five nursing facilities and one basic care facility between January 2021 and July 2022. Two more nursing facilities have announced plans to close in 2022 and only running critical access hospitals for the public.

“In 2023, I anticipate further closures,” said Peterson.

Sen. Kristin Roers, one of three Republicans to co-sponsor the bill, explained that services offered by the office of immigration should be open to all kinds of occupational groups.

“Healthcare’s not the only ones experiencing a workforce shortage and a crisis,” said Roers. “I think that whatever we do should be for all employers, not just healthcare.”

AIC’s Rich André points out that this bill reflects a national trend. “Which is: state legislatures increasingly choosing to invest, not only time, but also resources behind immigrant and refugee inclusion. And that looks different in every state.”

Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment has an Office of New Americans that “serves as the point of contact for state agencies, private sector organizations, and the public to advance the integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees in Colorado communities.”

It’s one of the 17 states that have an office like this embedded in the state government, which the AIC and World Education Services helped co-convene.

AIC also run the Global Talent Chamber Network, which brings together over 50 chambers of commerce nationwide to strategize for economic growth through immigrant integration and immigration reform.

“Chambers of Commerce, who obviously represent individual businesses, have started engaging on this issue,” said André. “Chambers all across the country […] see the attraction and retention of foreign-born talent to be of the utmost importance.”

He admits that there’s still more to be done.

“It’s not just [the] workforce piece, it’s about making sure that there’s language access. That key documents and information is translated and interpreted in a number of languages,” explained André. “It’s things like a strong legal services infrastructure to make sure that, when folks want to adjust their status, they can get trusted assistance to do that.”

Ensuring that immigrants and refugees have equal access to professional and occupational licensing is critical to AIC’s mission. “So, making sure that there not unnecessary barriers for immigrants and refugees who are otherwise qualified to get licensed in a particular profession,” said André.

That’s why he believes the biggest challenge that remains is the complexity of the immigration landscape.

“A lot of these offices have been established because there has not been a comprehensive immigration reform in decades,” he said, on top of institutionalizing the sustainability of this work beyond one administration. “And states […] feel like they need to step in and fill some of that gap that’s left by the federal government in our, kind of arcane immigration laws.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 1986 was the last year that Congress passed a major law on Immigration reform that granted legalization to millions of unauthorized immigrants who met certain conditions.

The offices that have been created to address immigrant labor issues suffer from a severe lack of resources. They might be staffed by fewer than 10 people who are tasked with handling immigration and refugee policy for a whole state - which may have millions of immigrant and refugee residents, explained André.

“The proliferation of these offices and the growth of the ones that do exist is really encouraging. But I think there’s so much more work to be done,” he adds. “To see more investment for a longer timeframe [in an] institutionalized way so that these offices can really meet the need a lot of the residents of those states deserve.”

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

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