WAHPETON, North Dakota — New residents of this small town on the Great Plains have come a long way to be here.

"Beautiful country, beautiful people," says Roman in broken English. He doesn't want to use his last name because some of his family members are still in Nikopol, Ukraine, just a few miles from territory occupied by Russia, and he fears it could endanger them.

"My city right now is a bomb every day," Roman explains during a break from work at ComDel Innovation, which manufactures medical devices and other precision equipment in southeastern North Dakota.

Like many employers in the state, ComDel is struggling to fill open positions. North Dakota is rural, and its climate can be harsh. According to CEO Jim Albrecht, it's difficult for Americans to relocate here.

"This climate doesn't necessarily suit everybody," Albrecht says nonchalantly. But for ComDel, it's no laughing matter. He says if the company can't find more workers, it can't continue to grow.

"For the past three years, we've been in a situation where customers have come to us and asked if we would take on work," Albrecht says. "And we've had to say no because of the inability to find people."

"At the beginning of this year, we made a decision that we needed to do something," he says.

That's when ComDel began seriously considering a program called "Join for Ukraine" — a lawful way for Ukrainians to come to the U.S. and work for up to two years. Albrecht says the company has hired about a dozen Ukrainians through this program so far and has extended invitations to more than 40 others.

The immigrant population in the U.S. is growing rapidly in North Dakota and other states far from the southern border.

The percentage of the population born outside the U.S. in North Dakota jumped more than 13% from 2021 to 2022, according to an analysis of Census Bureau estimates by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank. In Washington, Frey notes that during the same period, states such as West Virginia, Iowa, Indiana, Arkansas, and Alabama also saw significant increases in the foreign-born population.

"However difficult it may be, finding 40 Ukrainians for these job positions here was easier than finding 40 people from another state, as you call it," said Brent Sanford, former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

"This tells me that there has been a dispersal," says Frey, as immigrants have moved beyond the traditional gateways in states with already large immigrant populations. "And that tells me that there may be opportunities for employment or perhaps opportunities that aren't available to people in major immigrant-receiving states."

In North Dakota, the flow of immigrants is more of a steady stream than a flood, but in a state with a population of less than 780,000, these numbers are significant.

The foreign-born population is growing here in a way not seen in over a century as employers in North Dakota desperately try to fill job openings. However, there remains a deeply rooted ambivalence about immigration in a state that remains predominantly white, rural, and conservative.

Employers say they are in desperate need of more workers Much of the U.S. is experiencing a labor shortage, but it's particularly acute in this part of the country.

North Dakota's unemployment rate is below 2%. The same goes for South Dakota, while Montana and Wyoming have rates below 3%. This has pushed businesses across North Dakota to hire immigrants to fill vacancies in industries like manufacturing, oil extraction, and healthcare.

"Many of my friends live in the U.S.," says Roy Lubian, who recently immigrated from the Philippines. "And they say, why? Why North Dakota? It's so darn cold here."

Lubian moved to Bismarck, the state capital, to work at Sanford Health. The hospital system says it plans to hire a total of about 200 Filipino nurses.

Despite the weather, Lubian says she likes the laid-back pace of life in North Dakota. And she's found a close-knit Filipino community in Bismarck that gathers for potluck dinners every month. Still, living so far from her family can feel lonely at times, Lubian admits during an interview in her sparsely furnished studio apartment a few blocks from the hospital.

But primarily, she's here to work. She's managed to save money to send back to her family in the Philippines, including a cousin undergoing cancer treatment.

"Of course, my family is the reason why I'm here in North Dakota," Lubian says. "You have a lot of opportunities to secure your finances. A lot of overtime. Work extra shifts."

Immigration "brings in new people who really want to work," says Brent Sanford, who until January was North Dakota's lieutenant governor. Sanford now works in the state's oil industry, trying to fill positions on the Bakken oilfields in western North Dakota. He heads a project called Bakken GROW, short for Global Recruiting of Oilfield Workers.

"However difficult it may be, finding 40 Ukrainians for these job positions here was easier than finding 40 people from another state," Sanford says.

This isn't the first time North Dakota has seen a sudden influx of immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Europeans settled throughout the state. Norwegians were the largest ethnic group, although there was also a significant contingent of Germans from territory that is now part of Ukraine.