West Virginia needs a plan to attract immigrants

May 13, 2019

Since its founding, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. For just as long, few issues have been as emotional and as divisive as immigration. Groups excluded or restricted have included Scots, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Czechs, Hungarians and many others, most recently Mexicans and other Latinos.

Yet, wherever they have settled, legal immigrants have enriched West Virginia as they have enriched our nation. They have mined coal, started businesses, taught our

It is time to reconsider that effort. The facts and figures are stark and stunning. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia is the only one of the 50 states that has lost population since 1950. According to the PEW Charitable Trust, West Virginia’s overall population has declined more than any other state for the past decade. In the 12 months from July 1, 2017, to July 1, 2018, our state’s population decreased by 0.6% while the nation increased by 0.6%. This slide continues to the point that next year’s census is expected to cost us one more representative in Congress, reducing our state delegation to the House of Representatives to only two. Once we had five.

Foreign-born residents comprise only 1.5 percent of our declining population (0.7 naturalized citizens and 0.8 non-citizens). This ties us for last with Mississippi among the 50 states.

The proposal here is that West Virginia strive strategically and aggressively to increase the number of legal immigrants by taking the following steps:

• Establish a public-private bipartisan commission to identify the skills and talents most needed to support economic development and prepare a strategic plan to attract more immigrants from abroad and from other states with those requisite skills and talents.

• Establish a permanent agency of state government with the mission of vigorously implementing the commission’s plan of action with a major marketing campaign internationally and domestically to explain the attractiveness of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia and the opportunities it offers all with ambition and talent.

• Develop a welcoming program to introduce newcomers to West Virginia, its history and rich culture and the opportunities it provides.

• Engage our top political, business, union, educational, religious and medical leaders.

• Review all state and local laws and regulations, especially including tax, zoning and licensing requirements, to ensure they do not inhibit or discourage new entrepreneurs, whether native citizens or immigrants.

• Develop and implement a statewide public information campaign to combat bias and discrimination and explain why increased immigration is vital to the state and the prosperity of all our citizens.

• Build on the successes of current state programs working to attract corporations, such as Toyota and Amazon, and international tourists. These ongoing marketing programs should offer many lessons for a new, calculated campaign to attract new foreign-born individual residents. This new campaign should feature both domestic and international components, just as the tourism and economic development campaigns have. They should all benefit from synergistic cooperation and collaboration.

Some will question whether West Virginia with all its shortcomings can attract new immigrants from other countries and other states. We believe, however, that others also will love these beautiful hills and realize the rich potential of our state and its people. We believe that West Virginia can truly become a “shining city on the hill” and lead the nation in welcoming everyone foreign and domestic. Do we have the vision to take this vital great leap forward?

Aubrey King is retired in Huntington after a career as a lobbyist and university lecturer in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Marshall University and The Johns Hopkins University.