Employers call for immigration reform

North Dakota chamber officials and employers called Thursday for immigration reform that addresses a growing need for science and technology workers in the state.

Greater North Dakota Chamber and North Dakotans for Immigration Reform held a teleconference to talk about the streamlined and flexible immigration reform that they are counting on Congress to provide. Both the U.S. House and Senate are working on legislation. The Senate Judiciary Committee this week passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act by a vote of 13 to 5. The full Senate could take up the bill sometime in the next couple of months.

The state chamber and a Midwest Task Force on Immigration have been working with North Dakota’s congressional delegation to ensure that immigration laws address the need for workers.

Don Morton, senior director at Microsoft in Fargo, said the United States is not producing enough workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, and it needs to look internationally.

“We do live in a global economy. We have to compete globally for customers. We also have to compete globally for talent,” he said.

“As a country, we are going to fall behind within the technology industry,” he added. “We can fix this. We need to, as a country, really get focused on STEM education, but that’s a long-term solution. … We do need a more enlightened immigration policy.”

He cited the case of a Wahpeton conveyer belt manufacturer that hired an international graduate student at North Dakota State University, one of the world’s experts on supply chain management. The employee’s expertise multiplied the business, leading to employment growth. Yet the employee still is trying to get a green card that could lead to citizenship, he said.

“We just don’t make it very easy for our immigrants,” Morton said. “We just don’t make it very welcoming as we try to attract the best and brightest from around the world.”

John MacMartin, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce, said often Canadian students in North Dakota universities want to stay and work after completing their educations, but immigration laws make it difficult.

“That’s a good source for workers that we can’t access. So immigration reform is important. It’s important that North Dakota put its stamp on it,” MacMartin said.

Guy Moos, president of Baker Boy in Dickinson, spoke of the advantages that the H2B international worker program has brought to the Theodore Roosevelt Foundation in its search for seasonal employees and to his company in its struggles to find enough workers. However, the program is difficult to navigate and unreliable, he said. The uncertainty over whether international workers will be available affects his company’s ability to serve customers and grow, he said.

Andy Peterson, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said a modernized immigration system needs to attract entreprenuers, recruit talented workers whether high- or low-skilled, be easy to navigate and resolve the situation that has led to millions of undocumented workers.

“We really need to bring 11 million undocumented workers or immigrants into the legal economy in this country so they can pay taxes, they can attain a better education, they can contribute more to economic growth,” Peterson said. “We should develop a state-of-the-art system to ensure that the immigration laws are enforced and obeyed.”

The coalition of businesses is urging North Dakotans to contact their elected officials via the iMarch (www.MarchForInnovation.com), a national “virtual march” on Washington for immigration reform.