At Behrens visit, Finstad talks immigration

Photo by Cesar Salazar


U.S. Congressman Brad Finstad and Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said discuss Behrens’ work with refugees at its factory.



Labor shortage is a challenge that many U.S. companies have faced in recent years and Winona has certainly felt its effects, but the employment efforts of local company Behrens Manufacturing have piqued interest in Washington. First-term U.S. Congressman Brad Finstad met with Behrens’ leadership to discuss their efforts to bring in immigrant workers and automation to help supplement empty positions at their factory. Behrens has been recognized as Project FINE’s 2022 Partner of the Year.

Behrens partnered with Project FINE in 2015 on job opportunities for immigrants and refugees at the manufacturing plant. In turn, Project FINE awarded Behrens as its 2022 Partner of the Year for its efforts to welcome immigrant laborers. The company hired refugees in recent years as part of that partnership.

Finstad, the U.S. representative for Minnesota's first congressional district, toured local Winona businesses last Friday. At Behrens, he met with Behrens President Dana Busch, Vice President of Manufacturing Bill Bellingham, and Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said to recognize and talk about the company’s efforts.

Finstad talked about how he’d like to see Behrens’ work with immigrants and automation be adopted by other U.S. companies to help alleviate domestic workforce shortages.

“We aren’t a cash-rich, highly profitable company,” Busch told Finstad. “We struggle like a lot of U.S. manufacturers. We do OK, but we can do better. We have challenges … we’d like to upgrade. We would love to add a lot of automation. Automation comes at the perceived expense of job opportunities, but we also struggle to get enough employees in the first place. Automation is really something we need because we aren’t going to lay people off as a result of it. We can take people we already have and easily redeploy [them]. It just eases that burden of having to keep that pipeline filled, but really we’re struggling to get it right now. On top of that, it creates higher-paying, higher-trained jobs. But again, we’re looking at whether there are opportunities at the federal level or state level or grants for training; some of those things that could help a small company, like Behrens, be able to overcome those barriers.”

Behrens installed robots at its factory, which have helped with the labor shortage, Behrens leadership said. “That’s huge for us because everything that we make is sold, and we just can’t make enough, and that’s why we were needing to hire 30 people,” Bellingham said last May. “By not needing so many people, we can instantly make more product and make more money, and that’s the goal of any business.”

“I think all options have to be on the table, and that’s the conversations that I’ve been engaging with folks in D.C.,” Finstad told Behrens leadership. “The traditional pathway into the workforce — may be a two-year, four-year [school] however it may have looked before — I think we kind of turned it upside down now, and say whatever works for each and every one of us has to be an option that we talk about now. But moreover, I think it comes down to maybe two things that are connected, but not connected: One is border security and [the other] immigration. I don’t think we can talk about one without talking about the other.”

Previously, Finstad said that the current and previous administrations had two very distinct approaches to immigration. Under Biden’s administration, the wide-open border has allowed millions of illegal immigrants, and under Trump’s administration, Trump focused on building a wall and bolstering border security, but never exactly talked about immigration, Finstad said. When he took office, Finstad said one of his priorities will be to get control of the border.

Finstad last Friday said that he’d like a middle-of-the-road policy — not having open borders, but not strictly closing off immigrant entry to the U.S. — in terms of allowing immigrant workforce into the country. “The answer isn’t probably either,” he said. “It’s a combination of both. I think it’s a wall with a door and a process that we can all understand and get behind, and that really meets the needs of what we need in this country, not just for today, but for the next 10, 15, 20 years.”

However, one challenge that Finstad believes is halting a possible wall-with-door process for the country’s borders is that the U.S. work visa process is too convoluted and lengthy. Finstad said he plans on learning what roadblocks slow down the visa system, and that he plans on working on removing those in the future. 

“We owe it to our country to make a legal process that we can all understand, and we want to create legal citizens out of these folks and get them into the workforce, paying taxes, paying into Social Security, and all the things that we need,” Finstad said.

Finstad hasn’t introduced or voted on any immigrant labor policies but did support some House bills relating to labor. Finstad sponsored the American Workforce Empowerment Act, which sees tax-preferred college savings plans fund certain postsecondary certificate programs and apprenticeship programs, and cosponsor the Creating Opportunities to Thrive and Advance Act, which raises public awareness for skilled trade programs. Finstad also introduced a bill that would amend the Small Business Act to establish a rural manufacturing forgivable loan program.

Finstad believes that another aspect that would help with the domestic workforce in the future is to educate American youth about opportunities available to them close to home. “Winona is a great example,” Finstad said. “There are so many great things going on here: So many great companies, health care, and the colleges. Just so many things.”

“I hope that he will work with everybody,” Said said in an interview. “Like he says, he wants to bring people together and figure out the ways because he obviously recognizes that immigration is broken and that we have to do something … I really hope that he will do what he says he will do.”