The controversy over the Afghan refugees currently being housed at Fort Pickett in Nottoway County is both mystifying and absolutely predictable.
Mystifying because welcoming refugees from other cultures is a fundamental part of the American story. Predictable because we often forget that many of those earlier waves of refugees – Germans, Irish, Italians and all the rest – provoked xenophobic backlashes. The current strain of anti-immigration sentiment is all too American, with roots that go back to the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s and beyond.
We will not resolve those tensions – between the America of Emma Lazarus’ “golden door” and those who want to slam that door shut – today.
However, we can try to look at the Afghans at Fort Pickett – no doubt scared and on the other side of the world from a home they’ll likely never see again – as something that the Tucker Carlsons of the world either can’t conceive of or conceive of all too well. These people are not a burden, they are an opportunity.
At present, there are maybe 5,700 Afghan refugees being temporarily housed at Fort Pickett, “sleeping on cots in barracks and tractor trailers,” according to The Washington Post. There’s talk their numbers could swell to 10,800 or more. Whatever the exact number winds up being, here’s the irony: They have arrived in a part of the country that is losing population and trying to figure out how to reverse those trends.
I am reminded of the old story about the pious man trapped by a flood. Someone comes by in a canoe and offers to take him away. “No, thanks,” the pious man says. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.” Next comes someone in a motorboat, who warns that the levee is about to break. “No, thanks,” the pious man says. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.” Finally comes a helicopter. The pious man waves it off. “No thanks,” he shouts. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”
Alas, the waters keep rising and the man drowns. At the gates of heaven, the man asks the Lord: “Why didn’t you save me?” God just shakes his head and says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
The details of that story vary but the message is the same: Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing that the answer to our prayers is right before us.
In this case, let’s do the math. Nottoway County saw its population decline by 211 people – a rate of 1.3% over the past decade. As population losses go, that’s almost nothing. Indeed, Nottoway gained population slightly all through the ’80s, ’90s and the first two decades of the 2000s, whatever we’re calling them. That’s four decades of population growth, followed by a slight dip. Nottoway’s experience is quite different from those of other localities farther west. So maybe Nottoway doesn’t feel the same demographic pressure that other localities do.
Four of the five counties that border Nottoway lost population during the past decade, and often more population than Nottoway. Amelia County gained 575 people and Dinwiddie County lost 54 people, a miniscule decline of -0.19%. However, Prince Edward County lost 1,519 people (a rate of -6.5%), Lunenburg County lost 978 (a rate of -7.57%), Brunswick County lost 1,585 people (a rate of just under -9.1%, the ninth biggest drop in the state). If we add Nottoway to the other population-losing counties, we see a decline of 4,347 people. If all those Afghan refugees currently at Fort Pickett simply stayed in the neighborhood, they would instantly erase all those population declines and turn a population-losing part of Southside into a population-gaining part. Is that not the goal of these counties, to reverse unfavorable population trends? Here’s the solution.
A few weeks ago, the Farmville Town Council discussed the possibility that the refugees at Fort Pickett would strain local health services. The Farmville Herald said town manager Scott Davis told the council that there were 300 pregnant Afghan women at Fort Pickett, which would pose problems for Centra Southside Community Hospital.
“Our hospital typically probably delivers an average of a baby a day, which is only 365 a year,” the town manager told the council.
Nearly doubling that number might indeed pose capacity issues for the hospital. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here. Since 2010, deaths in Prince Edward County have outnumbered births by 204, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. If there were suddenly 300 unexpected babies born in the county, it would turn that part of the county’s negative demographics completely around. If Prince Edward County wants to reverse its population decline, it would want those 300 babies born there!
So far I’ve just looked at the counties around Fort Pickett. But now let’s look a little farther afield. Pittsylvania County lost 3,005 people during the past decade, a decline of -4.73%. Danville lost 465, a rate of -1.08%. (That’s actually good news for Danville. The 2010 census showed Danville losing population at a rate of -11.1%; the 2000 census showed it down -8.8%. Danville had been projected to lose 7% in this census but instead almost stayed even. Slowing the rate of population decline suggests that Danville really is turning things around.) In any case, the Danville-Pittsylvania region lost 3,470 people. If all those Afghan refugees moved there, the region would be a little shy of the population it had in 1980, or slightly higher than what it was in 1970. Either way, decades of population losses would be wiped away just like that.
The problem, and the solution, become even more dramatic if we look farther west. Buchanan County lost 3,743 people during the past decade, 6,623 since 2000 and 17,634 since 1980, when the county was at the height of its population. In the past four decades, Buchanan County has lost nearly half its population – from 37,989 in 1980 to 20,355 today. And the Weldon Cooper Center projects that the county will keep on losing population, too – to 19,501 in 2025, 16,196 in 2035, until finally just 12,821 in 2045. If any county needs an influx of new residents it’s Buchanan County, so why aren’t Buchanan officials down at the gates of Fort Pickett with a Welcome Wagon? Charlottesville and Albemarle County officials are, at least metaphorically. At least 250 Afghan refugees are going there; local officials held an event last week to talk about welcoming them. One of the speakers was an Afghan student at Piedmont Virginia Community College whose family came to the U.S. in 2015. She praised Charlottesville’s branch of the International Rescue Committee for helping her family four years ago. Right now we have rural localities desperate for young adults, especially young, college-educated adults. Palwasha Mohammad Asif, the student who spoke at the event, sounds exactly what some of those counties need.
Now, obviously I’m skipping over a few important considerations, such as what would all the new people do, be they from Afghanistan or Alexandria? Buchanan County was able to support a population of 37,989 in 1980 because the coal industry was strong then and now it’s not. The economy changed, and so did the county. Adding back the same population doesn’t work because there aren’t jobs there to support them all – that’s why people have left in the first place. So no, I’m not seriously suggesting that all these Afghan refugees move to Buchanan County. Still, there’s a lot of evidence that immigration drives economic growth, contrary to what those who oppose higher immigration figures usually say. Don’t take my word for this; see what Donald Trump’s alma mater, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has to say on the matter. If you don’t want to take the time to read that article, here’s the short version: Immigrants are 80% more likely than native-born workers to become entrepreneurs. Now that puts a different light on things, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t some of these population-losing counties like more entrepreneurs? Yes, yes, they would. Should it matter that they have a different skin tone and religion than most of us? No, no, it shouldn’t, not unless you want to bring back the Know-Nothing Party, which was very worried about Irish Catholics. Just last week the Bluefield Daily Telegraph had a story headlined “Population gains could help fill local vacancies.” The story quoted the president of the local Chamber of Commerce: “That is one of the biggest challenges that we do have. We’ve had workforce issues for a little while now.”
So, here’s the opportunity. Will any counties in Southside or Southwest take advantage of it? And if they don’t, do they have a right to complain about losing population?