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Lawmaker suggests bringing in 10,000 refugees to fix North Dakota's workforce problem

“Please arrange for more persons from Ukraine to come to North Dakota. Please develop options including a fast-track path for those fleeing the Russian invasion, family connections, and a special admission process into the US based on humanitarian grounds. North Dakota is ready to help these people in this time of great tragedy," Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said in a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum and President Joe Biden.

Refugees wait for their transfer to Poland at the train station in Lviv
Refugees fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine wait for hours to board a train to Poland, outside the train station in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 8, 2022.
KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS
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FARGO — While millions of people are being displaced by war in Ukraine, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, one North Dakota lawmaker has an idea that he believes will help ease the workforce shortage at home.

“I literally believe if we had everybody working together, our governor, our churches, our businesses, we could bring in 10,000 people in a short time,” said Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo.

“I think we’re at a unique opportunity for North Dakota to combine our humanitarian ideals, our business interests and our church teachings. To me, you have to bring a number of factors together to change what we are doing,” he said.

Mathern has written to Gov. Doug Burgum and President Joe Biden, saying that a part of the solution to the state's problem is staring them in the face.

In his letter, Mathern stated: “Please arrange for more persons from Ukraine to come to North Dakota. Please develop options including a fast-track path for those fleeing the Russian invasion, family connections, and a special admission process into the US based on humanitarian grounds. North Dakota is ready to help these people in this time of great tragedy. They need us, we need them.”

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Tim Mathern. Special to The Forum

He acknowledged the added stress of quickly relocating people but noted an underprepared community might be better than other options for refugees.

“I know that’s a challenge, for schools, for housing, for our medical system, but when faced with death, these people would be glad to be in situations where everything wasn’t properly in line with their needs,” Mathern said.

The fix should be a collaborative effort from the state, churches and businesses, he said.

“The economy of North Dakota is on a plateau; it’s going nowhere up without more people," he said. "I’m hearing that from businesses, so, to me, it’s the opportune time to be much more open and encouraging of new citizens."

Tom Shorma, president of WCCO Belting Inc., a manufacturer of specialized rubber belting products in Wahpeton, agrees that Mathern is on the right track and hopes immigrant and refugee families can move to North Dakota.

“I fully support what he is talking about. The state of North Dakota needs a workforce, and if we do it right we can do it in a non-disruptive manner," Shorma said. "I think we can become a model for our state and the rest of the country as far as how we handle refugees and immigrants."

He said the Wahpeton community has the resources to help refugee families come into the community, but it needs to be put into the "right structure." Jobs, housing, training and ESL classes could be provided for new arrivals, Shorma said. His company has 285 people who speak 10 different languages.

James Leiman, commissioner for the state’s Department of Commerce, said the issue is more complicated than bringing in thousands of refugees.

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James Leiman.
Photo via North Dakota Department of Commerce

“Once they come to the United States, North Dakota has 30,000 open jobs, and we have to match skill sets,” Leiman said. “We have a very complicated economic model here, with energy workers having very specific skill sets, and the same goes for agricultural workers."

Every business sector across the state is hurting for workers, he said. Wage inflation is hurting the service economy. Thousands of unfilled construction jobs are threatening to leave major infrastructure projects incomplete or delayed.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, North Dakota has struggled with filling jobs," Leiman said. "It’s difficult for a number of reasons: our winters don’t do us any favors, branding challenges like getting beyond the movie ‘Fargo,’ and educating people (about) what North Dakota really is."

Deborah Blood, a reverend, is the transitional conference minister for the Northern Plains Conference United Church of Christ. She thinks Mathern’s idea could work and possibly play into a project she and many others have been working on.

“The thing we’ve been working on, a vision of trying to restore rural North Dakota, we feel like inviting immigrants and refugees to come here could be a way for them to find a home and rebuild our rural areas,” she said.

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Blood has been in North Dakota for nearly a year and will be attending the first meeting of a mixed group of pastors, businesspeople and lawmakers on April 2 to explore the possibilities.

“It would be good for North Dakota to welcome these folks, and from a faith perspective, it’s part of our Christian heritage to welcome strangers," she said. "There are a lot of capable people here, and something could really happen."

Mike Nowatzki, the governor’s spokesperson, did not comment on Mathern’s idea of bringing up to 10,000 refugees into the state.

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With an annual budget of $2.3 million, Holly Triska-Dally, state refugee coordinator with the Department of Human Resources, is aware of interest across the state to bring more refugees to North Dakota.

“We got the 100,000 potential Ukrainian refugee admissions, and the U.S. is still trying to work out the legal pathways,” Triska-Dally said.

But this year, the refugee resettlement ceiling has been capped at 125,000.

“This tells us that it’s not going to be a whole lot of people really fast,” she said. Her department works with the federal government to provide services to refugees from day 90 until the end of five years, she said. Organizations like Lutheran Immigration Services provide services for the first 90 days.

Last year, the state resettled 35 refugees, and so far this year 78 refugees have been resettled in North Dakota. The state can expect about 225 refugees by the end of 2022.

To bring in thousands of refugees in a short amount of time would be difficult, especially in rural areas, Triska-Dally said.

“We are already looking across the state to see what we can do to help Ukrainian resettlement. What that number is hasn’t been determined,” she said.

So far this year, 52 people from Afghanistan have come in, and many of them are entrepreneurs with one already opening a restaurant in Fargo. About 65% are employed full time at about $18 an hour, and the rest are studying English, she said.

But Mathern believes the workforce shortage needs a quicker fix.

“We’re talking about bringing a few hundred people in — that’s just way too small," he said. "It’s up to businesses who are run by Republicans to speak out. They speak to me privately, but they need to speak out. It’s bringing these three variables together, the religious, the humanitarian and the business, that can make the difference."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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