North Dakota

1. Introduction

North Dakota, one of the least populous states in the country, has fewer than 700,000 residents. However, according to the US Census Bureau, North Dakota recently had the largest percentage population growth of any state in the country, growing more than 2 percent from 2011 to 2012. Foreign-born residents make up just 2.7 percent of the state’s population, but their numbers grew by more than 50 percent in the last decade. According to the Immigration Policy Center for Economic Growth, by 2010, Latino and Asian immigrants had purchasing power totaling more than $750 million, one marker of their growing influence in the state.

  • Size of foreign-born population (2013)


  • Percent of state’s population that is immigrant


  • Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2013


  • Top countries of origin

    Canada, India, Mexico

2. Economic Impact

Immigrant students in North Dakota contribute to critical science, technology, engineering, and math--or STEM--fields. For North Dakota, fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical to filling the state’s significant STEM worker shortage. In 2013, almost 60 percent of the students earning Master’s or PhDs in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. More than 76 percent of the students earning engineering PhDs in the state in recent years were also temporary residents.

  • 58.5%

    Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign-born (2013)

  • 76.2%

    Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary residents (2006-2010)

Foreign-born students create jobs for North Dakotans and often provide the technological innovations that drive economic growth in the state. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign-born graduates of a US Master’s or PhD program who stay in the United States working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for Americans. By 2020, North Dakota will need to fill 14,770 new STEM jobs and immigrants will play a key role in occupying these positions and continuing to promote economic growth.

Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in North Dakota

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across North Dakota. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 1,100 jobs and more than $108 million for the state by 2020. Expanding the number of both high-skilled (H-1B) visas will also have positive economic effects. The new H-1B visas awarded to North Dakota between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 569 new jobs for U.S.-born workers in the state by 2020. REMI estimates that expansion of the H-1B program would result in more than 400 jobs and add more than $36 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $53 million

    In North Dakota, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $53 million to Gross State Product in 2014.

Hispanics play an important role in all areas in North Dakota, but a report recently published by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows how significant their economic contribution is. Statewide, Hispanics account for $297 million of the spending power. They also pay $96 million in federal, state, and local taxes; $49 million of that amount goes to Social Security and $11 million goes to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key North Dakota counties: Between 2000 and 2010, more than 2,500 immigrants arrived in Cass County, the area that includes the cities of Fargo and Davenport. By moving into these neighborhoods, immigrants played a role in adding to the housing wealth of the neighborhood’s residents. That influx of immigrants added $303 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $19 million to housing wealth there overall.

3. Foreign Innovators

From 2006 to 2010, immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $20 million in annual income for North Dakota each year, a small but significant benefit to the state’s economy.

  • $20.6 million

    Annual business income generated by immigrant-owned businesses

Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contributions to North Dakota’s economy. German immigrant Charles C. Weigel founded the Hebron Brick Company, a privately held brick supplier that is the state’s oldest manufacturing company. Today, that firm employs more than 50 people and earns $2.5 million in revenue each year.

North Dakota has other prominent residents descended from immigrants. In the early 1900s roughly 100,000 Germans came from Russia to the US, and many settled in south-central North Dakota, a region later called “the German-Russian Triangle.” Former North Dakota governor and United States Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer is the grandson of one of these settlers.

4. Immigrants and North Dakota's Workforce

North Dakota has experienced a major oil boom as new technologies have opened the state’s massive shale reserve to oil production. This development, while creating tens of thousands of jobs for North Dakota residents, has also resulted in imbalances in the state’s broader labor market. Many former service workers have flocked to higher paying jobs in the oil fields, leaving places like restaurants, big-box retailers, and construction sites without enough employees. As a result, North Dakota currently has 22,000 unfilled jobs, many in the service sector. Fast food chains in some parts of the state were offering salaries as high as $15 an hour in an attempt to lure workers.

Despite the real need the state has for more labor, North Dakota employers have difficulty using current US visa programs to recruit the personnel they need to keep their businesses operating fully. The H-2B visa program, which is used to hire seasonal foreign-born workers to staff places like amusement parks, hotels, or restaurants, can be costly and cumbersome: the average employer spends $2,500 for each H-2B visa it sponsors, and applies to multiple federal agencies in the process.

Faced with such options, many of the fast food restaurants and hotels in Williston, ND have used the J-1 student-exchange visa program to bring in up to a third of their workforce. Some officials in the US Department of Labor, however, have raised questions about whether it is appropriate to use that visa--which was designed to give foreign students exposure to US culture-- to answer such longer-term labor needs.

North Dakota is also currently short a large number of the professional workers it needs in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) fields, the fields that help the state’s economy remain innovative and competitive. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, from 2009 to 2011 8.6 STEM jobs were posted online in North Dakota for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state. No other state had a higher ratio. Foreign STEM workers may help alleviate these shortages in North Dakota as they have in other states.

  • 8.6:1

    Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers

North Dakota may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. By the year 2030, the federal government estimates that the state will be short 881 registered nurses, leaving almost 24 percent of RN positions vacant due to a lack of qualified workers. Potential physician shortages are also a concern in North Dakota, a state with only one medical school and a rapidly growing population. Immigrants are already playing a major role filling such labor gaps: In 2012, one quarter of physicians in the state graduated from a foreign medical schools, even though immigrants made up just 2.4 percent of the state’s population. Graduates of foreign medical schools tend to be overwhelmingly immigrant.

  • 1,921

    Nursing shortage by 2020

  • 24%

    Share of nursing positions vacant by 2020

  • 25.2%

    Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2012

Immigrants in North Dakota are also helping to create jobs in the state through seasonal and temporary work. Between 1990 and 2010, North Dakota's supply of less-skilled workers born in the U.S. dropped by 33,470. Over that same period, the state's foreign-born, less-skilled labor force grew by 1,369, leaving a difference of 32,101 openings that immigrants could be filling. According to the US Department of Labor, North Dakota employers were granted certifications to bring in 396 workers on H-2B visas in fiscal year 2013. These visas have a powerful impact on job creation: one study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 H-2B visa workers, 464 jobs are created or preserved for American born workers. In North Dakota 396 H-2B visas authorized in the fiscal year 2013 alone supported almost 1,900 American jobs. Given labor shortages in North Dakota, the number of H-2B visas sought would no doubt be higher if the program were less expensive and less cumbersome.

  • 396

    Number of North Dakota H-2B (FY 2013)

  • 1,837

    Job Created

5. Spotlight

As the mayor of Williston, North Dakota, one of the fastest growing towns in America, Ward Koeser has seen massive change in the last five years. Because his town is the closest to North Dakota’s booming Bakken oil formation, thousands of less-skilled workers in the area have flocked to jobs in the oil industry, leaving places like the local Applebee’s, McDonald’s, and Walmart understaffed. “Literally everyone in town is feeling the impact,” Koeser says, “When someone moves here to work in an oil field, he needs services, but the problem is, there’s no one here to help.”

Koeser says that lack of labor causes major issues in daily life. Residents often cannot find places to get their haircut in town, and it is not uncommon for understaffed fast-food restaurants to have 45-minute lines. “Just going out to lunch-- and finding a place that can serve you-- is a huge challenge,” Koeser says. In this environment, employers routinely bring in about 500 or so immigrants each summer to fill local jobs, mostly students participating in summer internships and cultural exchanges. “It’s not a stretch to say they’ve been a critical help to us,” Koeser says, “I have no doubt even more local businesses would be closed or cutting back hours without them.” But many employers in town, especially mom and pop businesses, have trouble navigating the expensive and cumbersome visa programs. Koeser says that it has left thousands of jobs in his area vacant---including hundreds of hospital and nursing-home positions.

Though their contributions look different in each state, immigrants are helping to grow the US economy everywhere. Click on a state to learn more.