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 temporary residents, a group with no clear path to stay in America after collecting their diplomas. 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. 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.
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 2020, West Virginia could be short an estimated 1,850 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%
Jame Abraham, an oncologist originally from a small village in southern India, originally moved to the US in 1993, determined to get a top-quality education in oncology after watching ovarian cancer take his aunt’s life. After completing a residency at the University of Connecticut, he began a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in 1997, where he conducted leading research into cancer drugs and wrote a top-selling oncology textbook. In 2001 Abraham joined WVU Healthcare, an academic medical center in Morgantown, and has since helped turn their cancer program into one of the top 75 cancer centers in America. “I am very proud that from almost nowhere on the map we were able to come this far,” Abraham says of that journey. As the current leader of the university’s cancer program, he is hoping to break into the top 50 programs within the next five years.
Immigrant doctors have played a key role filling positions in West Virginia, a state where almost one in three physicians is originally from abroad. Laura Blake, Director of Physician Recruitment at WVU Healthcare, says immigrant doctors play an “integral role” in the care that VWU Healthcare provides to West Virginia’s 1.9 million residents. One foreign born doctor, for instance, recently accepted a position at Blake’s hospital to work as a pediatric urologist—the only such specialist in the state. During the last five years, when the position sat vacant, many children needing bladder or urinary tract surgeries had to leave West Virginia altogether to get treatment. “I can’t imagine our center without the contribution of immigrants,” Blake says.
Abraham is also having a major impact on the state’s cancer community. West Virginia’s cancer mortality rate is among the top five states in the nation, something Abraham is aiming to change by improving the access to care. Since arriving in 2001, he has helped make at least 10 new cancer drugs available to the state’s patients. He also advocated for a “mammogram bus” that travels to rural parts of West Virginia; the bus is on target to screen 2,000 women for breast cancer this year. Abraham says he believes what distinguishes the country’s best cancer programs is the cutting-edge research and clinical trials they make available to patients. He adds, “I look at that and say, ‘Why can’t we do that in Morgantown?’”
Like many immigrants, at one point Abraham faced challenges getting a visa and worried about whether he would be able to stay in the US. Near the end of his fellowship, he interviewed for positions all over the country, but found that many medical centers were unable to help him with his visa situation: as someone who had studied in the US on a J-1 visa, he needed a special government waiver to avoid having to return to India for two years after completing his studies. Using a federal program that grants waivers like these to immigrants with extraordinary abilities, WVU was able to help Abraham secure his waiver—a two-year process he says was “extremely nerve wracking.” Abraham and his wife became citizens in 2010. “I’m so grateful to this country,” Abraham says, “But the visa system is like a sword hanging over your head from the very beginning.” Nonetheless, he says, he would rather be an immigrant here than anywhere else in the world. “Where else would they allow an Indian guy with a funny accent to rise to this level?”
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.