In the early years of statehood, West Virginia needed workers—people willing to move to the new state to cut timer, build railroads, homes and barns, and perform jobs requiring specific skills. Joseph H. Diss Debar, who had emigrated from France and settled in Parkersburg, was appointed the state’s first Commissioner of Immigration to try to recruit workers from all over the world to West Virginia.
According to a 2007 article by Jim Casto in Wonderful West Virginia, Dis Debar* published a handbook intended to “secure the attention and confidence of that class of enterprising workers in both hemispheres, whom we are most anxious to welcome as permanent settlers to our infant State.”
In the years that followed, West Virginia attracted tens of thousands of immigrants who were trying to escape hardship in their own countries while seeking a better life here. As Casto reported, “Over the decades, countless Italians, Poles, Serbs and Turks were put to work building railroads, cutting timber, and running sawmills. Even before the Civil War, German and Swiss immigrants traveling up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers found jobs in the iron works located in the Wheeling/Weirton area. English and Belgian craftsmen were recruited to work in the state’s glass factories.”
But the biggest recruiter was the coal industry. Casto reports that descendants of slaves brought here from Africa moved up from the South to work in the mines while “thousands hailed from Italy, Hungary, Poland, Austria and a long list of other countries.”
Despite that history, most West Virginians take a negative view of immigration. The MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll found that 62 percent of likely voters agree with the statement that “a growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.” Just 38 percent agreed that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society.”
Sixty-one percent concurred with the statement that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”
In fairness, some of that antipathy toward immigrants is linked to the country’s broken immigration system and holes in border security. Also, President Trump, who is popular in West Virginia, has made a border wall with Mexico a keystone of his presidency.
However, West Virginia needs people. Our population isn’t growing and, as the economy expands, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill positions.
The preliminary results of a survey by the Contractors Association of West Virginia found that “an overwhelming majority of construction firms are having a hard time finding qualified workers—particularly craft workers—to hire.”
A similar survey by the Robert C. Byrd Institute last June determined that “West Virginia manufacturers are in the process of hiring more than 1,000 positions, the majority of which are new jobs. West Virginia Manufacturers Association President Rebecca McPhail said, “One of the recurring themes among these companies is the difficulty in filling positions.”
Try this experiment: Talk to a few business owners in West Virginia and ask them if they have trouble attracting and keeping good employees. You will hear over and over about how hard it is to fill positions.
We don’t have many immigrants in West Virginia–they make up only two percent of the population—and the ones that are here tend to be well-educated. According to the American Immigration Council, nearly half have attained a college degree or higher. Overall, only one in five West Virginians has at least a bachelor’s degree.
West Virginia no longer has a Commissioner of Immigration and we probably don’t need another state level bureaucracy, but we should be welcoming to people who want to come here and work, no matter where they are from, especially given our history.
*( Diss Debar also designed the Great Seal of West Virginia.)