Refugees, immigrants to South Dakota need our compassion

November 17, 2022 3:52 pm
In this aerial view, a destroyed apartment building is seen next to an area of heavily damaged houses on April 21, 2022, in Borodianka, Ukraine. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

In this aerial view, a destroyed apartment building is seen next to an area of heavily damaged houses on April 21, 2022, in Borodianka, Ukraine. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

During the past two months, I have emceed three benefit concerts to raise awareness of a statewide effort to bring 5,000 to 10,000 Ukrainian war refugees to our state.

The concerts in Watertown, Rapid City and Sioux Falls raised about $50,000 to support a fund that will help defray expenses for those who sponsor refugees.

The concerts by South Dakota native and international composer Calvin Jones featured stories from different refugees who essentially were bombed out of their homes by Russian forces on Feb. 24. 

They made a long, sometimes harrowing journey to South Dakota, where they are building new lives. They have inspired many people across the state to become part of the new Freedom’s Haven for a New American Workforce program.

That refugee effort was kicked off as the result of a work-force development meeting earlier this spring between Lake Area Technical College President Mike Cartney and Rapid City real estate developer Hani Shafai. 

The two met to brainstorm how South Dakota can grow its workforce, as there are more than 27,000 jobs open and less than 1,000 people on unemployment. Additionally, our state’s workforce, like that across the country, is aging. 

According to an August 2022 report by the South Dakota Department of Labor, all baby boomers will have reached 65 or older by 2030, at which time the state will need about 40,000 more workers than it does now. The initial workforce discussion was how to engage more Native Americans and get other immigrants into the state’s labor pool.

But when bombs started falling in Ukraine, the emphasis shifted to a dual humanitarian and workforce issue. 

More than 7 million Ukrainian refugees have poured into Europe, and about 2.6 million more are unemployed inside their country. Europe does not have the capacity or jobs to support all of these people for the long-term.

The United States is welcoming 100,000 through a new program, and Canada is welcoming about 500,000. Canada also needs workers.

Refugees already have started trickling into South Dakota. Lutheran Social Services is working with about 120 Ukrainians, of which about 75% are in the Sioux Falls area, with the rest mostly in the Black Hills. 

But South Dakota has the compassion and capability to host many more. Unfortunately, the federal Uniting for Ukraine refugee program is burdensome. 

Refugees must have a sponsor in the United States “who agrees to provide them with financial support” essentially for up to two years. Basically, someone, or an organization such as a church, must help them get settled, find housing, navigate the federal aid programs, obtain work permits and more. 

To assist in that responsibility the new Freedom’s Haven program has created a fund at the South Dakota Community Foundation to raise money to help defray unexpected expenses sponsors and refugees may encounter. About $150,000 is in that fund so far.

Volunteers also are needed across the state to coordinate local refugee efforts.

But South Dakota’s workforce needs won’t be met just with Ukrainian refugees. We need to roll out the welcome mat to all legal immigrants.

That requires an immigration system that works. Congressman Dusty Johnson and Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds all personally have been engaged, or sent staffers to meetings, regarding the Ukrainian refugees.

They understand our businesses need more workers. 

With the election now over, let’s hope they and their Congressional colleagues seriously address the issue. 

Ukrainians aren’t the only people experiencing hardships. There are good reasons about 2.76 million migrants have crossed the border this year. Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans, as well as Mexicans. 

Life is miserable in their home countries – no hope and no future. 

Like us, they seek a better life for their families. 

They are looking for a hand up, not a handout. They work hard and are good family members. South Dakota needs them. Look around and see who is building our roads, our apartments, driving trucks and milking the cows. 

South Dakotans are descendants of immigrants. We are compassionate people. Let’s simultaneously solve our workforce needs and be good neighbors as well.



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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a Watertown real estate appraiser, former newspaper reporter and editor, and longtime opinion columnist. He is president of the South Dakota Lakes and Streams Association, vice president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and served 16 years on the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources.