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Kwan Yong Lee moved to North Dakota in 2013, after graduating with an economics PhD from Purdue University, to work at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He’s gotten pretty used to the cold, and likes that Grand Forks is safe, and family-friendly – his two kids were born in the state a few years after he moved.

Then, sometime in the last five or six years – he doesn’t exactly remember when – he received his green card. Because Lee is originally from South Korea, has a PhD in economics, it was a relatively easy process.

“I don’t think it was really hard for me to change my status,” he said, though it took a bit of time. “Given that I have the highest degree of PhD, and I was employed by the state university, it was … easier.”

Faced with one of the worst labor shortages in the country, North Dakota is hoping to attract people like Lee: highly educated, with easy-to-grant work authorization. In summer 2023, it opened the Office of Legal Immigration (OLI) to help expand the state’s workforce. OLI spokesperson Janna Pastir believes the emphasis on “legal” was likely necessary to get the office created in the Republican-led state.

North Dakota’s search for the ‘right kind’ of immigrants strikes at a core tension in U.S. policy. While economists believe that immigration is a boon for economic growth, it’s politically divisive – polling data from Morningstar shows that 55 percent of Americans now view the number of immigrants crossing the southern border ‘illegally’ as a threat.

Immigration is vital to the country’s economic growth. When the number of people coming to the U.S. plummeted during the pandemic, it exacerbated an existing national labor shortage and reduced national population growth to 0.1 percent – the slowest in U.S. history, according to research by Arturo Castellanos Canales of the National Immigration Forum. The subsequent pandemic recovery has been driven by immigration.

“It’s really vital to the country’s economic interest to make sure that the immigrant workers who are here are able to participate in the labor force to their full potential,” said Julia Gellatt, associate director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. 

But rhetoric from the Republican party has made it politically difficult to openly favor any immigration.

“One strategy – for lack of a better word – that the right has used is to amplify the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sometimes it’s couched in terms of legal status, but it’s … meant to be a broader indictment of immigration,” said Tara Watson, economics professor at Williams College and the director of the Center for Economic Security and Opportunity, at the Brookings Institution. 

Meanwhile, North Dakota desperately needs new workers: today, it has only three workers for every 10 available jobs, one of the lowest rates in the country. This labor shortage is a persistent issue: except for a nine-month stretch during the pandemic, its unemployment rate has hovered below four percent since June 2009, well below the national rate. The dearth of workers affects most employment sectors

“We have lots of job openings here, and we don’t have the people to fill those jobs,” said Cullen Goenner, an economist at the University of North Dakota. 

Immigration to North Dakota began in the 1870s, when the state used the Homestead Act to enlist farmers to work land made accessible by the expanding railroad. By 1910, 71 percent of North Dakotans were immigrants or children of immigrants. In 2022, only five percent of North Dakotans were born outside of the United States.

“Those peoples’ children and grandchildren are still very much a part of our communities,” said Pastir of the OLI, who is deputy director of the state Commerce Department's Workforce Division. “North Dakota grew, and even existed, because of immigration to begin with, through homesteading.”

But the national rhetoric around immigration has filtered down to North Dakota. In a 2023 interview for his presidential campaign, Governor Doug Burgum lamented how difficult it is to retain highly-skilled workers coming on visas while people were coming “illegally” across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The two things juxtaposed against each other make no sense. We have to stop the illegal [immigration] and then make sure that we’re cutting the red tape on legal immigration,” he told Forbes in July 2023, a month after deploying the North Dakota National Guard to the southern border. 

As a result, some North Dakotans are now fearful about the idea of people moving to the state from abroad. In 2019, the Burleigh County Commission narrowly voted to accept a small number of refugees, after a hotly contested discussion and so much local interest that the meeting had to be postponed and moved to a larger space. 

The meeting deeply unsettled Leah Hargrove, the Executive Director of Bismarck Global Neighbors, which works to welcome and integrate new Americans into central North Dakota. She’s seen some North Dakotans, following coverage of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ in New York, get worked up about the same thing happening in their own state. 

“I’ll have people who really happily and really joyfully will bring donations to my office for new Ukrainians, or bikes to refugee kids, and then ask me: ‘but you’re not serving any illegals, are you?’” said Hargrove. 

Legal working status does not determine whether someone’s labor contributes to the economy. According to Castellanos Canales’s research, ‘undocumented’ immigrants play a critical role in key sectors of the U.S. economy: among the 73 percent of immigrants who make up the agricultural sector, more than half are without working authorization. In North Dakota, the labor that immigrants provide is critical to the state infrastructure. 

“Without this influx in the labor force, we’re just not going to have the services we’ve come to expect and need, whether it’s your elderly parents at an assisted living facility, or providing basic services at any business,” said Groenner. 

It’s possible the state has struggled to retain immigrants due to the fixation on “legal” immigration. Already, the process of moving to North Dakota is difficult enough: the winters are long and brutal, and it can be difficult for newcomers to feel immediately welcome when joining the states’ tight-knit, and sometimes insular communities. 

“We’ve seen a lot of travel nurses that come here, and then buy out their contracts before their three years [are] even up because they’d rather be somewhere else,” said Hargrove. “They’re willing to absorb thousands of dollars in debt if they can go somewhere else to work instead.”