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A View from North Dakota

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990 immigrants made up 1.5% of North Dakota’s total population. That percentage grew to 1.9% in 2000, and to 2.5% in 2010. The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in North Dakota compared with other states in the Midwest, and the growth of that population between 1990 and 2010. The foreign-born population in North Dakota grew by 77% between 1990 and 2010. This was one of the lowest increases in the Midwest region.


Following the end of the Cold War, countries across Eastern Europe struggled to maintain order amidst the rapid liberalization of their political systems and economies. This process frequently led to rising inequality and poverty as well as intense political competition. The challenges were particularly prominent in Yugoslavia, where centuries-old ethnic and religious tensions re-emerged as an expedient scapegoat for growing economic and political insecurity. Following the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the Serb-led government in Belgrade deemed similar pressures from from the largely Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina as an existential threat. The 1992 invasion and campaign of ethnic cleansing led to the most violent conflict on the European continent since World War II. Thousands of Bosnian refugees fled to Croatia and other parts of Europe before eventually coming to the United States, including North Dakota. Though recently surpassed by the Nepali-Bhutanese as the largest refugee community in the state, nationals of former Yugoslavia—principally Bosnians—have traditionally constituted the bulk of refugee arrivals in North Dakota. In 2000, for instance, Bosnians amounted to 72% of the state’s new immigrant arrivals. North Dakota is also notable for the high percentage of Bosnian refugees who belong to the ethnic Roma minority. Often labeled gypsies, the Roma make up only 10% of the total population in Bosnia, but represent roughly half of all Bosnians living in Fargo.   Bosnian refugees are but one facet of North Dakota’s history of refugee resettlement. Since 2000, North Dakota has accepted 3,694 refugees from 34 countries. As of FY 2011, Nepali-Bhutanese make up the largest proportion of refugees (810). They are followed closely in numbers by the former Yugoslavia (761), Somalia (594), Iraq (404), and Sudan (338). On average, the state accepts an additional 8 asylum seekers each year. While these numbers appear low when compared with most other Midwestern states, in 2002 North Dakota ranked 6th nationally in number of refugees per capita despite ranking 48th in total population. Statewide, in 2010 refugees made up 20% of North Dakota’s entire foreign born population, first in the Midwest. The majority of refugees arriving in North Dakota settle in Fargo, Bismarck, or Grand Forks. As the state’s largest city and the headquarters of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota Center for New Americans, Fargo is the hub of refugee resettlement. In past decades, refugees have made up 76% of Fargo’s recently arrived foreign-born population and 6% of the city’s total population.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of North Dakota, has increased doubled between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very small. It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different. The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in North Dakota among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States. An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in North Dakota demonstrates that the majority (55%) live in Fargo. The Grand Forks metropolitan area saw its share of Foreign-born residents decrease by 3% between 2000 and 2010, while the share of Foreign-born residents living in Bismark metropolitan area decreased 2%.  


In North Dakota, and across the region, in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (56%) than US-born residents (53%) were currently married. Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also slightly larger—2.5 individuals, compared with 2.3 for the native-born. Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.

Immigration History

The history of immigration in North Dakota is unique in that it does not hew to the typical chronological patterns of the other states in the Midwest. While most states in the region had stopped receiving large influxes of European immigrants by 1900, significant numbers of immigrants, most from Northern Europe, continued to arrive in North Dakota well into the 20th century.According to the U.S. Census of 1900, 30 percent of North Dakota’s population was composed of foreign-born Scandinavians, primarily from Norway. These immigrants lived largely in the eastern and northern regions of the state. Ethnic Germans from the Russian Empire settled in the south-central region, and there was a substantial population of Canadians in the northern counties. German immigrants were dispersed throughout the state, and were the second-largest foreign-born group at the time.More unique still was the ethnic makeup of the state in the latter half of the 20th century. Unlike most other states in the region, North Dakota’s foreign-born population remained predominately European well into the last century. In 1970, over 30 percent of state residents still spoke German at home, and another 30 percent spoke either Swedish or Norwegian. But the last half-century has brought a sharp decline in the state’s population, and both economic prospects and the use of ethnic languages have dwindled. While huge swaths of the rural population have decamped to Bismarck and Fargo, or points beyond, new immigrants did not come to fill vacant farming and other jobs in rural communities, as is often the case. To some degree, the recession has alleviated the state’s labor shortage. But it retains the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, as of January 2012.


In its simplest form, ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents. This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status. It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants.To the general public, two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status. Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants.Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the U.S. There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival. It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the U.S.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training. Between 1990 and 2006, the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction. Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in North Dakota are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry. It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.  


In 2006, 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in North Dakota are shown below for 2010. It has one of the smallest differences between the foreign-born and native-born living below poverty. One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work. Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown). Business ownership is most often reported for different racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants and non-immigrants. According to Census 2000 data, Asians were more likely than Hispanics to own businesses. Seventy-two percent of Asians in North Dakota were foreign-born, compared with 15% of Hispanics, and 18% of the Black population. In 2010 Asians constituted 1% of the population in North Dakota, and owned a similar percentage of businesses in the state (0.7%). In contrast, the proportion of Hispanic-owned and Black-owned businesses were much less than their share of the population. Although the percentages of North Dakota businesses owned by U.S.- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 412 and 287 firms respectively. The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in North Dakota is additionally indicated by 2007 combined sales and receipts of $172 million, and combined employment of 2,120.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states. In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 30%. Of the entire Asian population in North Dakota, 27% were homeowners.


Immigrants in North Dakota, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents, although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born). In North Dakota, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers.   The dropout rate in the 2007-2008 school year of Hispanic students (4.4%), Black students (3.9%) and Asian students (4.5%) were 2-3 times higher than that of White students (1.8%). State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data can be believed, state tests in North Dakota leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from all racial and ethnic groups demonstrated improved (or relatively stable) scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10. Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey. Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.” The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010 that is not significant; small levels of change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants. In 2010, 93% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently. This was highest percent in the spectrum of states in the Midwest, perhaps because of differences in the makeup of the foreign-born population or recency of arrival. Another factor in English ability may be the availability of programs for limited proficiency adults. Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the U.S., and his or her level of education and literacy in their native language. In North Dakota, 5.4% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010, and 1.6% of the total population spoke English less than very well. One percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient). The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained relatively high over the years.   As would be expected, the children of immigrants in speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state.   Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens. Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in North Dakota in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home. Though Hispanics in North Dakota and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States. The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history basic English language skills. In North Dakota, 37% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in North Dakota who entered the United States before 1980, 76% were citizens in 2009, the just below the national average (79%). Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize. The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in North Dakota and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010.   In the 2008 elections, 1.1% of registered voters in North Dakota were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Contrary to other Midwest states, the foreign-born voting eligible population decreased 1.3% 2000-2006. However, the political and civic roles of foreign-born and children of immigrants may increase in the future, considering 81% of children with immigrant parents in North Dakota were U.S. citizens in 2009. As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in North Dakota remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 2% of the total population is Hispanic, 1% is Asian and 1.2% is Black/African American, there are no state legislators who reflect those populations.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins. Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 10% of all marriages in North Dakota were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is nearly equal to the Midwest (11%).



11 bills concerning immigration have been passed in North Dakota since 2008. The state is considering the merits of making E-Verify mandatory for public and private employers.


2011 – Notarial Acts (ND H 1136). This law establishes that only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents may be public notaries. 2011 – (ND H 1222). A person with a medical degree issued by a non-U.S. medical school must meet certain requirements before they may be licensed to practice medicine in North Dakota. Applicants must complete 30 months of postgraduate training in the U.S., its territories, or Canada, or the board must determine that they have earned equivalent experience within the last 18 months. 2011 – Alien Agricultural Land Ownership (ND H 1367). This bill makes it a class A misdemeanor for a person without lawful presence to acquire agricultural land. 2011 – False Identification to Obtain Alcoholic Beverages (ND S 2133). This law requires liquor retailers to seize a false ID that has been presented during the purchase of alcoholic beverages. Retailers must also report the false ID to a law enforcement agency. 2011 – Teacher Effectiveness Compensation Plans (ND S 2150). School districts are permitted to add the number of students enrolled in migrant summer programs to their district’s weighted average daily membership. This increases the state funding provided to the school district. 2011 – Legislative Management E-Verify Study (ND HCR 3045). This resolution instructs the state office of Legislative Management to study the feasibility of making the E-Verify program mandatory for private or public employers. 2009 – Human Trafficking (ND S 2209). This bill concerns forced labor, debt bondage, slavery, sexual coercion, human trafficking, and physical restraint. 2009 – School Personnel (ND H 1400). This education bill included provisions for new immigrants and English language learners to access career development resources. 2009 – Nonresident Commercial Drivers License (ND H 1438). Non-residents may receive a temporary commercial drivers license. 2009 – Operators License Requirements (ND H 1161). Legal presence is required to obtain a drivers license or state-issued identification card. 2009 – Child Care Assistance (ND H 1090). This law concerns the eligibility for child care assistance benefits. Applicants and their children are required to have their citizenship or resident alien status verified.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the U.S. labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84%. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce. About 40% of immigrant workers in North Dakota were born in Asia, and about 20% were born in Europe and Africa.Immigrant workers in the state make up a much smaller percentage of the labor force than in the U.S. as a whole. The top industries employing immigrants and US-born workers in North Dakota in the state are the same. North Dakota had the lowest state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 in the Midwest; immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit. In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 27% in North Dakota and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of U.S.-born workers. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce. The foreign-born workforce in the North Dakota grew while than the native-born labor force decreased over the period from 1990 to 2010.  


North Dakota has a small foreign-born population with a low rate of increase between 1990 and 2010.  Increases in the foreign-born population and work force are key to the future prosperity of the state and the Midwest region.. The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population—a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.” A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force

Who's Involved

  • Tim Flakoll, State Senator, North Dakota

    State Senator Tim Flakoll is a 3rd term Republican from North Dakota’s 44th District. He currently serves as Chair of the Agriculture Committee and also on the Education Committee. Flakoll is the provost for Tri-College University (TCU), the higher education consortium between North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and Concordia College. Flakoll’s past employment includes serving as general manager of the Fargo Moorhead RedHawks minor league baseball team. Flakoll has served on the North Dakota Senate Education Committee since 1998 and the Midwestern Higher Education Compact since 1999.

  • Don Morton, Site Leader, Microsoft Fargo

    Don Morton is a former American football player and coach and currently a software executive. After stints as head coach at North Dakota State University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Morton returned to North Dakota State as the Assistant to the President and Director of University Relations. He later joined Great Plains Software as chief of staff for CEO Doug Burgum. Morton became an employee of Microsoft Corporation through the acquisition of Great Plains in 2001. Morton is currently the site leader for the Microsoft campus in Fargo, North Dakota. 



  • Dean L. Bresciani – President, North Dakota State University
  • James Burgum – Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Arthur Ventures
  • Vineet Saxena – Vice President, WCCO Belting, Inc.
  • Thomas D. Shorma – President & CEO, WCCO Belting, Inc.
  • James Sweeney – President, Fargo Jet Center, Inc.
  • Pat Sweeney – President, Weather Modification, Inc.

State Events

To engage a broad community of Midwesterners in a conversation about immigration the “Task Force on Immigration and U.S. Economic Competitiveness: A View from the Midwest” has gone on the road to learn more about the immigrant communities throughout the region. The forums highlighted how immigrants contribute to local economies and the integration challenges local communities are facing, among other issues. 8 forums were held in the late summer and early fall. Local leaders participated. The diverse canvas of immigrant communities and local issues was put on full display.


A View from Fargo

Moderated by Don Morton, Site Leader, Microsoft
. In collaboration with The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and ImmigrationWorks, USA.