When push comes to pull
Bismarck development to the north is showing no signs of going south
---> By JACLYN METZ, For the Tribune
Corina Moscovich, an assistant Spanish teacher at the University of Mary, is amazed at the state of affairs in her native country.
"Argentina is a county of immigrants. One hundred years ago it was one of the best countries in the world and now the third generation descendants of the immigrants are leaving Argentina to look for opportunities in Europe," Moscovich said.
Moscovich will only be at Mary for a year, and then she might go back to Argentina -- but only for a few months.
"I would like to get a job as a Spanish teacher in the United States somewhere," Moscovich said.
How about North Dakota?
"There are not really many jobs in North Dakota for Spanish teachers. There really should be, because Spanish is an important language," Moscovich said.
Perhaps it's not surprising that North Dakota is not an international destination teeming with culturally diverse people. But, like Argentina past, it used to be. Now, like Argentina present, many third-generation North Dakotans are leaving to find opportunity elsewhere. However, they are not leaving for another country, just another state.
What's a state to do? Solutions seem to come mostly in the form of tax breaks and incentives aimed at luring new companies in to hire North Dakota workers. The problem is, soon there might not be anyone left to hire.
What if the incentives were given to immigrants rather than companies?
What if North Dakota attempted to once again become a destination for people of foreign nations? What if the department of immigration was revived to tell potential foreigners about our state?
"If people from Argentina move to America they usually move to bigger cities. Many people don't know what North Dakota is -- it needs more promotion," Moscovich said.
Bill Patrie, rural development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric and Telecommunication Cooperatives, would agree. The one-time economic development director for North Dakota under Gov. George Sinner, Patrie has been involved in North Dakota development for quite some time. His experience has convinced him that reinstating an old practice of welcoming foreigners to North Dakota is the only way to revitalize a somewhat stagnant state.
"North Dakota's department of immigration was ended in 1933 under Gov. Bill Langer. We had about 680,000 people at the time," Patrie said. "In 2001, a bill was introduced during the legislative session that would create a department of immigration once again in North Dakota. The bill didn't even make it out of committee."
Patrie said that there are two forces that cause migration -- a push and a pull force.
"Right now, the push force is working against us," he said. "Young people are leaving because they believe, and they are told, that life is more exciting outside of North Dakota. This is a concern, but I think we need to understand and create pull forces to North Dakota. People are leaving their countries because of political unrest, religious intolerance and lack of decent employment. There are 1.2 billion people in the world who earn less than a dollar a day. We have nice houses, schools, churches and land available. We should be recruiting immigrants who don't naturally know about North Dakota."
Once these immigrants come, where would they work? Shouldn't there be jobs ready and available for those who don't want to farm?
"Economies don't create people, people create economies," Patrie said. "The immigrants who are brought in will get on their feet and get established. Right now we're trying to develop economic programs that would recruit people who already have everything."
Post-Sept. 11 suspicions of foreigners concerns Patrie.
"We've gotten into a situation where it is common to try to stomp on immigration and compassion," Patrie said.
Although Patrie's suggestions are mostly aimed at the immigrants who come from down-on-their-luck sort of nations, he understands that there are highly skilled immigrants who would like to come to America for economical as well as other reasons.
"I think that Sen. Dorgan had a good idea when he proposed that visas for highly skilled workers (of which there are only so many) be given only to states with out-migration problems," Patrie said.
Forces that push North Dakotans out may actually attract foreign workers. Salaheddine Elhassani works as the lead programmer at Bismarck's Documents Conversion Inc. Originally from Morocco, he attended North Dakota State University, and said he made a natural transition to a job in North Dakota. North Dakota's conservative nature appeals to Elhassani, who practices the religion of Islam.
"Bismarck is a nice town," he said. "There are a lot of people who ask me questions and I enjoy sharing things about my faith with them. I don't feel like here there is a lot of discrimination."
Obtaining the proper visas to work here has not been a problem for Elhassani, although things have been slower after Sept. 11.
"A 20-day vacation to Morocco ended up being a 40-day trip because I needed a Visa stamp from the American Consulate in Morocco," Elhassani said.
Once foreign workers are attracted to North Dakota, perhaps coveted corporations would soon follow. Robert Black, manager of human resources and public affairs at Unisys Corporation, said that positive things happen when different cultures are given a chance to utilize their unique skills.
"Being foreign-friendly establishes Bismarck as a place where there are people with multiple language fluencies and companies may be more interested in moving here," Black said.
Unisys probably didn't choose to establish itself in Bismarck because of its diversity, but since opening its doors in 1994, it has gathered a growing number of Bismarck's more diverse.
"Hiring workers who are fluent in different languages is part of our commitment to customer service," Black said. "We work with vendors on all major continents and it's nice to be able to serve them in their native languages."
Terumi Sharp of Japan, Fatima Hirsch and Marlene Dukart of Brazil, Leandra Miani of Argentina, Margoth Kostelecky of Colombia and Rebecca Horner of Mexico all were excited about the opportunity to use their language skills on the job. The women -- all but Miani were already living in Bismarck when they were hired -- said that working at a company with approximately 230 other employees allows them to share their culture with a lot of interested co-workers.
"I think that Bismarck is a very nice place with open people," Sharp said. "They are curious about our different cultures and this helps them broaden their vision."
The women from the Latin countries recently shared their salsa dancing skills with Bismarck's God's Child Project. Horner was the first to become involved and she quickly put her Unisys connections to work on the well-received benefit dance.
"I think that the doors are opening more and more to different cultures in Bismarck," Horner said.