The debate over immigration in this country is now centered on issues of border security, sanctuary cities, Central American caravans and asylum. These are hot button topics, but the arguments have drowned out the fact that this country needs immigrants.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a growing economy combined with an aging population and a lull in the birthrate have driven up the demand for immigrants in the workforce. “The result is a country that is becoming increasingly dependent on immigrants to fill jobs and fund programs like Social Security and Medicare, economists said.”
“We have a situation where U.S. fertility rates are really low and we’re not actively adding to the workforce through natural increases,” Aparna Mathur, a scholar of economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told the Journal. “We cannot afford to talk about immigrants as bad for the U.S. economy.”
Nowhere is that truer than West Virginia where employers are in a constant struggle to find, train and retain qualified workers. The drug epidemic keeps some out of the workforce. Age is also a factor. U.S. Census figures show 33 percent of the state’s adult population is age 55 or older.
And we have an unfortunate but predictable diaspora of young people who find it easy to relocate to another part of the country that better fits their lifestyle, while offering more job opportunities.
The Journal reports that the vast majority of immigrants settle in metro areas and their suburban counties, which means they’re not coming to West Virginia. According to the Census Bureau, just 2.3 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic, Latino or Asian. Just one West Virginia county, Monongalia, had a population gain based on international migration.
West Virginia’s roots are intertwined with immigration. As James Casto wrote in Wonderful West Virginia in 2007, “Over the decades, countless Italians, Poles, Serbs and Turks were put to work building railroads, cutting timber and running sawmills. German and Swiss immigrants traveling up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers found jobs in the iron works located in the Wheeling/Weirton area.”
At one time, West Virginia had an Immigration Commissioner whose job was to recruit people from other countries to come here.
Even if neither you nor your immediate family is a recent arrival in this country, just ask around. My wife’s grandparents came to Wheeling from Slovakia to work in the steel mills. Tony Caridi’s father immigrated from Italy.
Last week, I said on Talkline that West Virginia should throw open welcoming arms to immigrants. There was push back from some who thought I was advocating for illegals or lobbying for West Virginia to be a sanctuary state.
West Virginia needs another wave of legal migrants who want to work hard, settle into a community and raise their families. We need to shelve the tired and unfounded fear that newcomers are “taking our jobs.”
We in West Virginia can, at times, be suspicious and even resentful of “outsiders.” However, we also have a warm and welcoming side, and that’s the characteristic we should display to encourage people from other countries to make West Virginia their home.