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Iraq War Vet: Immigrants Critical to Fargo’s Growth

Around the 2016 presidential election, when some politicians in North Dakota introduced anti-immigration bills, the Fargo City Council and local business community pushed back. The reason: The city’s economic health depends on new Americans.

“We have between 5,000 and 8,000 open jobs in Fargo-Moorhead, and we can’t honestly afford to be picky about where employees are from,” says Mike Arntson, the plant manager at Cardinal Glass Industries in Fargo and a member of a city council initiative to welcome immigrants. “I couldn’t run a business without new Americans. They’re 65 percent of my employees.”

To Arntson, politics is beside the point. “I’m no bleeding heart liberal,” says the graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who served 15 years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Iraq. “I’m very conservative. But is there any place in the United States where immigrants are stealing jobs from red-blooded Americans? That’s what I hear, but I don’t know that it’s happening.”

It’s certainly not happening in Fargo, where the unemployment rate dipped below 2 percent in 2017 and where the U.S.-born population is fast aging out of the workforce. In North Dakota, only 49.7 percent of the U.S.-born are now working age compared with 67 percent of the foreign-born. Like other area businesses, Cardinal Glass finds itself short of employees. The work at its plant is strenuous and repetitive, and requires carrying and slotting large sheets of glass. “I believe that some people may not be as willing to do manual labor,” Arnston says. “If you go to any manufacturing firm in Fargo, you will find a population of new Americans.”

Arntson points out that his community has grown on the backs of immigrants — people like his own great-grandfather, who came to this country in 1881. “There were too many people in Norway and not enough land to farm. And here, there was plenty of land to farm and not enough people to farm it,” he says. Arntson’s great-grandfather took a boat to Canada, then a train to Minneapolis, and finally walked behind an ox cart to Fargo, where he established a homestead. Long-time residents were skeptical of such immigrants. Today, Arntson says, those immigrants’ grandchildren are repeating the same language once used them, “saying they don’t want people from Somalia working here.”

Without policies that welcome these newcomers, he adds, “I wouldn’t be able to grow my business. My customers and suppliers wouldn’t be able to grow their businesses either.”

Yet, just as then, “there are more jobs than people here to fill them,” says Arnston.

At the moment, Arntson needs to hire about 10 new workers, but he doesn’t get enough applicants. “We are looking for people to fill those openings, because of the growth of the residential building industry,” he says. “We absolutely need these new Americans coming to work.”

Cardinal Glass has 37 manufacturing facilities and 6,000 employees nationwide. The Fargo location launched in 1998 to support sales to a major window manufacturer and today has more than 30 clients. From the beginning, new Americans have been an important segment of its workforce.

The plant’s opening coincided with efforts to resettle refugees from Iraq, Bosnia, Sudan, and Rwanda. “Our little Fargo was growing pretty quickly,” says Arntson. These refugees, unlike many U.S.-born Americans, flocked to positions that didn’t require a college degree or specific technical training. In North Dakota today, 19.3 percent of the foreign-born population has less than a high school education, compared with only 6.6 percent of the U.S. born that does. “The immigrants that I’ve been exposed to are ready to enter the workforce, and we are taking advantage of their abilities in order to grow our business,” Arnston says. Without policies that welcome these newcomers, he adds, “I wouldn’t be able to grow my business. My customers and suppliers wouldn’t be able to grow their businesses either.”

Arntson supports immigration reform that welcomes new Americans like these. He believes that when local government takes the lead, as the Fargo City Council did, hearts and minds will change. “We’re a conservative state, but we’re also a very friendly state,” he says. “When someone moves in next to you from somewhere else, there’s education that occurs.” He’s seen rural North Dakotans hear testimony from new Americans about their struggles. “They’re like, ‘Wow, that person’s amazing and what they’ve been through is crazy and now they’re living in Fargo and started a business. We should support this.’ ”

Some of these immigrant entrepreneurs got their start at Cardinal Glass. One Bosnian refugee spoke no English when Arntson hired him; he eventually became a team leader and then left the company to start a trucking business. A second Bosnian refugee left Cardinal to open a cleaning business. They are now among the nearly 870 immigrant-owned firms in the state that, combined, are responsible for providing jobs to nearly 12,000 North Dakotans.

“If we don’t have people moving into North Dakoka, then we won’t have people to continue the growth of the economy in North Dakota,” Arnston says. “So to cut off anyone, to tell anyone they’re unwelcome to move to our community, is only gong to hurt our community.”

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