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'They're coming here to be Americans': Mitchell considers legal immigrants to boost workforce

The Mitchell Area Development Corporation is looking to the Kennedy Access company to help businesses find workers through its EB3 program that recruits immigrants from a variety of countries seeking to work in the U.S. and assists them in their journey by facilitating legal entrance and attaining a green card.

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A help wanted sign is pictured on a Mitchell business.
Mitchell Republic file photo
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MITCHELL — In an attempt to fill worker shortages Mitchell businesses are grappling with, the Mitchell Area Development Corporation is calling on a recruiting company to bring legal immigrants to fill jobs.

Leaders of job recruiting company Kennedy Access pitched their services Wednesday in front of a group of local business leaders, school administrators and city officials. Through its EB3 program, the company recruits immigrants from a variety of countries seeking to work in the U.S. and assists them in their journey by facilitating legal entrance and attaining a green card.

Julian Chung, director of Kennedy Access, touted the company’s services for bringing businesses “excellent workers” who aspire to “stay and be permanent” U.S. citizens.

“The U.S. government will provide the worker's green cards and permanent residence in exchange for the workers providing labor in U.S. businesses that need workers. The workers come here with the intent to stay and be permanent residents,” Chung said, noting businesses utilizing the recruiting service can request an unlimited number of workers.

Legal immigrant workers who are recruited by Kennedy Access’ EB3 program are required to fulfill a one-year “handshake agreement” at the businesses they land a job at. Chung said about 90% of the workers fulfill the one-year contract.

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Kennedy Access got its start roughly 20 years ago. At that time, Chung said the company was recruiting immigrants to fill jobs in the U.S. meat industry. The company has since rapidly grown over the past two decades, expanding into 10 states and serving a wide variety of industries, such as welding, packing and skilled labor jobs.

Huron, Yankton and Sioux Falls, are among the South Dakota cities that Kennedy Access has provided large businesses with recruiting services.

Mark “Smokey” Heuston, a human resource manager at Dakota Provisions in Huron, joined Wednesday’s meeting and highlighted the successes of working with the recruiting company to fill jobs at the meat processing facility. As of now, Dakota Provisions has roughly 60 workers on staff who joined through the EB3 program.

Heuston said businesses seeking to add legal EB3 immigrant workers must prove to the South Dakota Department of Labor that attempts have been made to hire the jobs locally but were unable to fill them.

“You have to prove that you have a need for labor that you can’t meet here. After you prove you can’t get local workforce, then you can start hiring through the EB3 process,” Heuston said.

Mitchell (Republic file photo)
Mitchell (Republic file photo)

For a business to bring in one immigrant worker through Kennedy Access, the tab is $250. Heuston said the costs of each worker is primarily for the job advertisements.

What separates the EB3 program from other immigrant workforce recruiting programs, Heuston said, is its ability to provide workers with green cards. Heuston emphasized the workers are “not refugees” and aren’t eligible for any government assistance like food stamps.

“These are people who have to pay for the immigration process and the plane tickets when they come here,” Heuston said, noting each family is looking at a tab of $25,000 to make the move with the help of Kennedy Access. “These people are coming here to be Americans. They are coming here to be good U.S. citizens. They have loyalty here.”

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The age demographic of the workers who are recruited typically range from 30 to 40, and most have families joining them, Heuston noted. He said a majority of the immigrant workers brought to the country via the EB3 program are college educated.

The company recruits workers across the globe, including Southeast Asia and European countries like Ukraine and Russia. Southeast Asia countries, like Vietnam and Cambodia, have become popular areas where Kennedy Access recruits immigrant workers, Chung said.

Job retention rate, housing pose biggest challenges

While Heuston had glowing reviews of the company’s recruiting services, he pointed to workers leaving after their one-year agreement is fulfilled as “one of the biggest drawbacks.”

Despite the potential short-term job stints, Heuston indicated getting one year of “hard work” out of an EB3 employee is worth it.

“Some of them only stay for one year. But how many of you could use an employee who comes for a year and doesn’t miss a day?” Heuston said. “Generally, they leave to go with other family members who may already be living in the United States.”

From Heuston’s experience at Dakota Provisions, he estimated about 50% of the EB3 workers remain at the job beyond one year.

To improve the job retention rates, Chung suggested employers provide as many services outside of work as possible, such as helping them set up a bank account, gain access to English language lessons and assisting them in their search for housing.

“Things you cannot do, we can bring someone in and be on site to help with job training. They would rather stay with someone who is helping take care of them rather than starting over in a city,” Chung said.

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With a new job comes the need for a new home. And that can be a challenge for businesses to utilize the EB3 program to its full potential, Chung said.

“Housing can be an issue if housing is already an issue. If you don’t have enough housing now, it can be challenging,” Chung said.

Over the past few years, leaders of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation and some city officials have pointed to Mitchell’s lack of affordable housing options as a major issue that’s stifling the city’s growth.

Although Mitchell’s lack of affordable housing wasn't brought up during Wednesday's meeting, it was the key factor behind the Mitchell Area Development Corporation’s plan to bring a large housing development along Foster Street next to the Firesteel Heights neighborhood.

With the surge of housing developments that are in the works throughout Mitchell, more housing inventory is on the horizon and could provide more room for an influx of workers like the EB3 program could bring. But it remains unknown whether Mitchell has the housing options to meet the needs of the potential influx of workers should local businesses utilize the EB3 program.

How are $250,000 homes considered affordable housing?
Although it was an issue that sparked concerns from nearby residents, the Mitchell Area Development Corporation’s housing project received final rezoning approval Monday.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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