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Immigration critical to growing ND businesses

FARGO -- An immigration reform bill taking shape in the U.S. Senate could have important ramifications for North Dakota businesses and their ability to grow.

Business, health care and education leaders told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., during a roundtable discussion Monday at Microsoft that U.S. businesses would benefit from a smother process for needed workers to enter the country and stay.

Foreign students fill a void in the math and science fields that American students are unwilling to tackle, said North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.

He said that while it may be possible to convince more American students to pursue careers in what are perceived as difficult subjects, until that happens students from abroad should be encouraged to come here and to stay.

"Our needs for an educated high-tech workforce are immediate," he said.

Tom Shorma agreed.

Shorma, president and CEO of WCCO Belting, a Wahpeton manufacturer of specialized rubber products for agriculture and manufacturing, said he was introduced to an NDSU graduate student from overseas a few years ago who helped him find a new supplier that could provide the type of textiles WCCO Belting needed to stay competitive.

When the student graduated from NDSU, Shorma hired him as the company's vice president for supply channel management. Since then, the company's workforce has more than tripled.

"He's allowed us to be competitive, but he can't stay indefinitely," Shorma said.

He said the employee is waiting for his green card so he and his family can stay in the U.S. permanently.

"Here's a family that's living, working and generating jobs in North Dakota and we're saying, 'Sorry, you can't stay,' " Shorma said.

Heitkamp said one of the items in the comprehensive immigration legislation being worked on is visa reform.

"How many small businesses are competing globally, but they can't compete globally for personnel? Hopefully, we'll see some long-term reform there," she said.

What the final bill will look like remains to be seen, she said.

"We're still interested in what the final package will look like, because there may be things in that final package that will not be good for North Dakota," Heitkamp said. One worry is that resources used to protect the northern border will be pulled for use elsewhere, she said.

Ushashi Chakraborty, who graduated from NDSU with a master's degree and now works for Microsoft in Fargo, said current rules limit the type of work she and colleagues at Microsoft who work in the U.S. under visas can take on.

Depending on where someone is on their path to permanent residency, Chakraborty said traveling home to see friends and family can be a scary proposition because of the risk of being denied re-entry.

"It depends on so many other things," she said. "Something happens in the world that doesn't connect to me in any way, but then it could affect the visa and I might get a reject."