North Dakota Lawmakers Look to Boost Immigration as Labor Shortages Hurt Economy – InForum

BISMARCK — As labor challenges continue to plague North Dakota’s businesses, some lawmakers believe the state should expand its search for talent beyond state borders.

The state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the US, and employers in every sector of the economy are struggling with staffing. Job Service North Dakota recently estimated that 40,000 jobs are available statewide.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, is sponsoring two proposals aimed at bringing more legal immigrants into the herd.

  • Senate Bill 2142 would create an immigration agency within the state Department of Commerce to facilitate the recruitment of foreign health workers. The Senate Industry and Business Committee held a well-attended hearing on the bill on Tuesday, January 10th.

  • Senate Bill 2151 would create an immigration office within the Bank of North Dakota to encourage resettlement of refugees and immigrants generally. The bureau would also administer an incentive program that offers working immigrants up to $160,000 in forgivable credit if they remain in the state. A hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Both bills have garnered support from Republicans, who hold an overwhelming majority in the Legislature. Sens. Kristin Roers and Ron Sorvaag, both R-Fargo, are co-sponsors of SB 2142, while House Majority Leader Mike Lefor and Senate Majority Leader David Hogue added their names to SB 2151.
Mathern told the Senate committee Tuesday that SB 2142 would help hospitals and nursing homes facing labor shortages fill persistent gaps in their workforce.

“The goal of this bill is to get healthcare workers to live, work and stay in North Dakota,” Mathern said. “This is not an attempt to get temp workers to fill temporary needs. This is a Homestead-style attempt to get people to live here.”

Mathern said his bills represented a return to the strategy behind the Homestead Act, which lured tens of thousands of foreign settlers to what is now North Dakota with promises of free land in the late 1800s.

But the idea of ​​a state immigration service existed before European settlers in North Dakota began “proving” land claims.

Dakota Territory legislators established an immigration office to “facilitate the entry of immigrants” in 1874—some 15 years before North Dakota and South Dakota were admitted to the union as separate states.

In 1915, North Dakota policymakers created a post for an immigration officer, but amid the economic struggles of the Great Depression, lawmakers abolished the post in 1933.

The abolition of the office coincided with the beginning of a gradual population decline in North Dakota that lasted until the Bakken oil boom of the late 2000s.

Officials and employees in the state’s medical sector approved SB 2142 on Tuesday, despite urging lawmakers to expand the proposal beyond its healthcare-focused scope.

Roers, a nurse manager at Sanford Health, told the committee on Tuesday that she started helping her employer bring in nurses from overseas last year and she’s found the immigration process for health care providers can be slow and tedious.

The Republican senator said establishing a state immigration service would particularly benefit medical providers who don’t have the resources to hire an international recruitment agency.

Shelly Peterson, the president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, said the staffing crisis at the state’s nursing homes was “the worst on record.”

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Shelly Peterson, the president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, is testifying on a bill Tuesday, January 10, 2023.

Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Half of North Dakota’s nursing homes stopped accepting admissions last year due to labor shortages, she said. Six long-term care facilities closed in 2021 and 2022, and at least two more are scheduled to close their doors next year, Peterson added.

“Unless we can secure our own staff and significantly reduce our reliance on contract staff, our financial viability will never return and more facilities will close,” Peterson said. “We’re slipping and need your help.”

An immigration agency could coordinate and expedite the placement of international nurses, CNAs and housekeepers in nursing homes, Peterson said.

Celestine Olale, a Kenyan nurse working in Fargo, said a government immigration agency “would be very helpful in helping the international nurses settle in and get the right documents.”

Assistant Attorney General Claire Ness testified that a provision in SB 2142 requiring an immigration attorney to work at the Department of Commerce was not permissible without the Attorney General’s permission. She added that such a lawyer cannot provide legal advice to private companies or citizens.

Hogue said he signed on to be a co-sponsor of SB 2151 because he believes Mathern is on the right track in trying to address labor shortages through legal immigration. Hogue did not comment on the details of the bill.

Senate Industry and Business Committee Chairman Doug Larsen, R-Mandan, said his panel will continue to work on the bill in the coming days and weeks before voting on whether to recommend its passage.

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