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Regional businesses call for more foreign workers

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Sugar beet harvester
Fargo-based Amity Technology is one of the largest manufacturers of sugar beet equipment in the world.
Amity Technology

Farm equipment is a hot seller in Russia. In fact, Howard Dahl has more business than he can handle. His Fargo manufacturing company builds sugar beet equipment and other farm equipment. 

Countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan are rapidly growing markets. So it's no surprise Dahl needed an attorney with special skills. 

"Every contract is half Russian, half English. On one side Russian, one side English," explains Dahl.  

Sam Rangaswamy
Sam Rangaswamy applied for 25 work visas last April. There were so many applications, a lottery was used to determine who would get visas. In the visa lottery, none of his applications were chosen.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A couple of years ago, Howard Dahl found a young Russian attorney attending college in Moorhead. He hired Nikolai Riebov to help expand the Russian market. 

"It just made our business run a lot smoother and allowed us to do business much more efficiently," says Dahl. 

But a year later Riebov's visa renewal was rejected. Dahl says U.S. immigration wasn't convinced he needed to hire a foreign worker. But Dahl says an attorney fluent in Russian is not easy to find in Fargo, so he appealed the decision.  

"We had to go through an application process, spent about $7,000 in legal fees. He had to go back to Russia for six months," says Dahl. 

Riebov won the appeal to return to the U.S. Ironically, he's now running a new office the Fargo company just opened in Russia. 

"It's going to be the country that beats the others to the best of the best in terms of immigrants, is the one that wins the economic growth battle."

Howard Dahl says that's one example of how immigration restrictions affect his company.  He also doesn't have enough welders to build farm equipment fast enough to meet demand. He says demand for skilled welders is far outstripping supply in North Dakota. 

"We could use 500 welders from anywhere in the world," says Dahl. "Between the oil patch and those of us in manufacturing, we could have 500 people move in here and they'd have a job tomorrow." 

But bringing those skilled workers from other countries can be a formidable challenge for a small business, if the supply of H1B visas is exhausted. 

Sam Rangaswamy staked his company on skilled computer programmers from India.  

The California computer programmer started a new business in Fargo because of the quality of life and the lower cost of doing business. The work is coming in. But the workers are not. 

Rangaswamy applied for 25 work visas last April. Each application cost him about $1,000.  Highly-skilled programmers in India were recruited to come to Fargo, but  there were so many applications a lottery was used to determine who would get visas. In the visa lottery, none of his applications were chosen. 

Rangaswamy planned to build a new office this year, but he has pushed his business plan back a year, and worries he may lose some contracts if he can't find a way to do the work.  

"We don't know what this quota is about, and whom does it exactly benefit and for what purpose does it exist? It's truly not benefiting the businessman in the United States, " says Rangaswamy. 

Rangaswamy could also hire U.S. citizens. There are skilled computer programmers looking for work. 

"But the question is, who would come to Fargo, and at what price?  $50,000 in Fargo is equal to $110,000 in New York," says Rangaswamy.  "Demographically, the choice is not very attractive for anybody who is sitting in Chicago to move to Fargo and start working here. So that's the biggest challenge here." 

Rangaswamy says his plan is to bring skilled programmers from India, then hire recent college graduates who could be mentored. 

Rangaswamy says he will apply for as many as 35 work visas next month. In fact, he's considering hand-delivering the paperwork to California on April 1, in an effort to beat the expected flood of applications for the 65,000 available visas. He believes the future of his company is at stake.  

Supporters of immigration caps argue business owners like Sam Rangaswamy are just trying to take advantage of cheap foreign labor. 

Fargo Attorney David Chapman says that's a legitimate argument. But the immigration law specialist says it's not supported by the cases he sees. 

"The argument that they're taking jobs from Americans just doesn't hold water with me," says Chapman. "I've seen companies advertise and advertise and advertise for jobs, and they get resumes that are either not qualified or they don't get any resumes at all. They just can't find people to fill the jobs." 

Chapman says for many companies he works with, immigrants are the only source of qualified employees. He contends many of the best trained computer programmers and engineers live in countries like India or China.  

"I think in the long run, it's going to be the country that beats the others to the best of the best in terms of immigrants is the one that wins the economic growth battle," Chappman says. 

The immigration issue involves more than high-tech and manufacturing workers. 

Laurens Robinson works for a Fargo company that markets regional products in international markets. 

Robinson came to the United States from South Africa in the early 1990s with his wife, who is a physician. He lived in Texas for several years and worked as an executive with a large national company. 

A couple of years ago, his wife took a job in Fargo. When he found a job working in international trade, he needed to apply for a new visa. 

His application was rejected because immigration officials did not believe his training matched his new job. He was told an appeal would take at least a year. 

"What does a company do in the meantime? And what do you as an individual do in the meantime?" Robinson asks.  "You can stay at home and volunteer at the Salvation Army, or your church, or you can go back home (to South Africa), which is no longer home because your family is here."

Robinson chose to stay home for a year. His visa was eventually reinstated, but the process cost several thousand dollars. 

Robinson says the small international trade company that hired him also lost business, because they couldn't find a replacement with his skills in international business. 

Fargo farm equipment company owner Howard Dahl says he'll be turning down contracts this year because his company can't grow fast enough to keep up with demand. 

He says more immigrant workers are one solution. But he also understands the political reality that increased immigration is not likely to happen in a presidential election year.