A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
West Virginia’s history and culture was shaped by patterns of immigration. In the 1700s, the state became one of the key settling places for the Scotch-Irish, and in the early part of the 20th Century, Italian immigrants helped staff the state’s growing coal-mine industry. In 2011 however, according to analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, just 1.3 percent of West Virginia’s residents were born abroad—a smaller proportion than in any other state in America. While the nation’s foreign-born population grew by nearly 30% from 2000-2011, West Virginia ranked last among all states over that period, with an immigrant population growth rate of just 1.6%.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
Top countries of origin
In the last two decades, the immigrants arriving in West Virginia have added to the state’s diversity. In 1990, the three most common countries of origin of West Virginia’s foreign-born population were the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. By 2011, that had changed dramatically, with Mexico, India, and China topping the list.
Between 2008 and 2018, STEM fields are projected to play a key role in US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. For West Virginia, fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical: In 2009 almost 55 percent of students earning Masters or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. More than three out of four students earning engineering PhDs in the state in recent years were also non-citizens.
Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary residents (2006-2010): 76.3%
Foreign-born students create jobs for West Virginians and often provide the technological innovations that drive economic growth in the state. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign-born graduates of a US Master’s or PhD program who stays in the United States working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for Americans. That translates into a notable employment boost for West Virginia, a state where, in 2010, almost one in eight STEM workers with an advanced degree was foreign-born, a figure that grew from close to zero at the start of the decade.
Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in West Virginia
Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across West Virginia. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 1,700 jobs and more than $146 million for the state by 2020. Expanding the number of both high-skilled (H-1B) visas will also have positive economic effects. The new H-1B visas awarded to West Virginia between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 491 new jobs for U.S.-born workers in the state by 2020. REMI estimates that expansion of the H-1B program would result in more than 700 jobs and add more than $59 million to Gross State Product by 2014.
In West Virginia, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $85 million to Gross State Product in 2014.
In addition to providing valuable support to West Virginia’s workforce, immigrants, specifically Hispanics, are also contributing to West Virginia's economy. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that Hispanics account for $286 million in West Virginia’s spending power. Hispanics also contributed $99 million in combined federal, state, and local taxes. A total of $48 million of those taxes went to Social Security and $11 million was paid to the Medicare trust fund.
Although the immigrant population in West Virginia is small, immigrants make substantially outsized contributions as entrepreneurs. Immigrants in West Virginia currently own 2.7 percent of all businesses, despite making up just 1.3 percent of the state’s total population. These companies generate almost $139 million in business income each year, or 5.1 percent of the state total.
Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contributions to West Virginia’s economy. The pharmaceutical giant Mylan, one of West Virginia’s largest employers, counts its two founders as the children of Serbian and Italian immigrants. Kroger, one of the top 10 largest employers in the state, was originally founded by the son of German immigrants.
West Virginia is currently short of the professional workers it needs in critical STEM areas, the very fields that help the state’s economy remain innovative and competitive. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, from 2009 to 2011 more than three STEM jobs were posted online in West Virginia for every unemployed STEM worker in the state. This placed West Virginia 11th in the country in terms of its shortage of highly-qualified STEM workers.
West Virginia may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. The federal government has designated 95 percent of the counties in West Virginia as being medically underserved areas or having medically underserved populations. By 2030, West Virginia could be short an estimated 2,480 registered nurses. Immigrant doctors, however, are already playing a critical role filling West Virginia’s physician labor needs. Currently almost 30 percent of active physicians in the state are graduates of international medical schools, the fifth highest proportion in any state in the country, even though immigrants make up just 1.3% of the state’s population.
Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2012: 28.9%
Dr. Ashu Dhanjal, an invasive cardiologist originally from India, is a perfect example of an immigrant who is providing value to West Virginia. When Dhanjal arrived in 2013, Logan Regional Medical Center had one cardiologist on staff. Many of the patients in the area were traveling to Charleston or Huntington for their care. “My colleague had built up a large practice, but there was so much need here, one person couldn’t take care of it all,” Dhanjal says. That was especially true given the unique health challenges Logan and the surrounding area face. Many young people left the region when coal industry jobs dried up, leaving a largely elderly population. The incidence of conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and black lung is also high, as well as financial challenges that hinder patient care. “I was initially seeing so many patients here who had a heart attack four, five, or even 10 years ago, get treated in an emergency room, and then never had any follow up care,” Dhanjal says, “It was just too far and too expensive for them to drive.”
Once Dhanjal began working in the hospital full time, the number of heart attack patients being transferred from emergency rooms to cardiology practices in bigger cities decreased dramatically. She and her partner also helped the hospital grow its cardiology services to a point that most major procedures can be done in house. “Now the community feels comfortable that when they come to our emergency room with a heart issue that they will be taken care of—and the care will be really good,” Dhanjal says. She’s also made promoting a healthy lifestyle a real focus of her work, trying to prevent heart problems before they start. “You get really attached to the Appalachian community,” Dhanjal says, “And I want to do everything I can to help.”
Dhanjal says she will likely remain in West Virginia for the long term, and she wants to become an American citizen as well. “I tell my daughter that the United States is a place where if you are wiling to work hard and put in your best, the sky is truly the limit,” Dhanjal says, “That’s what really drew me here.” Like many foreign doctors in the United States, however, her path has been long. After practicing medicine for several years in India, she came to the United States in 2007 and essentially repeated six years of residency and fellowship training so she could practice cardiology in the States. After all that work, Dhanjal then faced a risk she might have to leave if she didn’t find a rural hospital willing to sponsor her for a waiver of the J-1 visa requirement that she return home. Being on a J-1 instead of an H-1B visa during residency also lengthened her time to a green card by several additional years.
Immigrants are helping to grow the US economy everywhere, not just in the places—like our biggest cities—that we expect. They are helping to fill labor shortages on America’s farms, starting businesses that employ US workers, and developing the cutting-edge products that make America the world’s preeminent innovation hub.
Click on a state to learn more about the contributions immigrants are making to the local economy.