Afghan refugees arrive at Fort Pickett. Photo courtesy of Courier Record.

Southwest and Southside Virginia are missing an opportunity.

Virginia has so far welcomed more than 4,000 Afghan refugees – the precise number at the moment is 4,032 – but not a single one of them has wound up in the counties that are most desperate for new residents.

Every locality west of the New River and most of those south of the James River have lost population. In a logical world, you’d think those localities would have looked at all the Afghan refugees passing through Fort Pickett in Nottoway County and other military bases as an opportunity. Those counties all say they want to grow their population – here’s an unexpected group of people who are looking for a place to live. Why are they not sending delegations to Fort Pickett to tout the virtues of living in their locality?

Instead, all the refugees resettled in Virginia so far have wound up in localities that are already growing in population. The vast majority of them will add to the population of Virginia’s urban crescent. Based on figures from the Virginia Department of Social Services, 2,738 Afghans have been found homes in Northern Virginia, 546 in Richmond, 306 in Charlottesville, 189 in Newport News and 111 in Roanoke – the only resettlement location in the western third of the state.

There’s a practical reason for this: That’s where resettlement agencies are, many of them church-related. In Roanoke, that would be Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

However, these figures ought to raise a question for other parts of the state: Why don’t they have groups that are working to resettle these refugees? Some may see this in humanitarian terms and I’m certainly not blind to that. We have a moral obligation to help people who helped us, and then found themselves in mortal danger once we effectively turned Afghanistan back over to the murderous, medieval, misogynist thugs of the Taliban. However, I’ll let others do the preaching. Instead, I’ll make a business case for why Southwest and Southside Virginia should be taking steps to attract some of these refugees – and, more broadly, immigrants in general.

First, we simply have the numbers. Most of Southwest and Southside is losing population. Some of these declines are shockingly steep. The most recent census shows that over the past decade, Buchanan County lost 15.5% of its population, Lee County 13.3%, Wise County 12.8%, Dickenson County 11.2%, Russell County 10.8% and Tazewell County 10.3%. All those are in coal country, or, perhaps we should more accurately say, former coal country. But rural areas in general are seeing their populations fall as the economy reorganizes itself in ways that are distinctly unhelpful to rural communities. In Southside, Sussex County was down 10.4%, Brunswick County was down 9%, Charlotte County was down 8.4% and, well, you get the idea. Further, Virginia’s rural areas are losing population at a faster rate than rural areas in neighboring states. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, explained why in a presentation he gave to a conference at Longwood University in November. The short version: Our urban crescent is so economically successful that it’s effectively accelerating the demographic collapse of rural Virginia. In 1980, rural Virginia and metro Virginia had about the same median ages. Now so many young adults have moved out that rural communities are seeing vastly higher median ages and, absent some influx of younger residents, that demographic divide is only going to widen. The longer version is here.

Many localities have held out hope that a migration of remote workers – effectively, Zoom refugees – will save the day. In some places, maybe they will. However, so far the counties with the highest rates of remote workers are mostly on the fringes of existing metro areas. We see clusters around Charlottesville (in Nelson County, 11.8% of the workforce was working from home and that was pre-pandemic), around Richmond, on the edges of Northern Virginia. We don’t see a lot of remote workers in more rural communities that aren’t near metro areas (Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck is an exception, with 9.06% of its workforce working remotely pre-pandemic). The remote workforce is a real thing – we at Cardinal all work remotely; I type out these words from the backwoods of Botetourt County. However, many rural counties shouldn’t count on a great wave of remote workers for the reasons I explained here.

So where is any population influx – not even growth, just some new arrivals to help slow the decline – going to come from? It’s clear where it won’t come from. The fertility rate in the U.S. – the average number of babies that are born to a woman during her lifetime – is currently 1.78, which is below what demographers call the “replacement rate” of 2.1. It’s been below the replacement rate since 1972. That means the only reason the population is growing is because of immigration. Rural America has largely been outside the recent immigration waves we’ve seen, which is yet another reason why so many rural areas are seeing their populations decline – they are missing out on what has been the driver of population growth.

How much of a driver? We think of Fairfax County as a fast-growing area and it is. We also think of it as a place that’s sucking away young adults from rural Virginia. It’s that, too. But it’s also losing older adults who are retiring to more southern climes. What’s really driving population growth in Fairfax County? It’s immigration – 123% of the county’s population growth comes from the foreign-born population, according to the Census Bureau. Those Afghan refugees settling there will push that figure up even more. Now Fairfax is an exotic place to many of us in this part of the state, so let’s look closer to home. Roanoke is very proud to be gaining population again and especially proud that it’s back above the 100,000 population mark. The Census Bureau says 85% of the city’s population growth comes from immigrants – they’re the ones who have helped Roanoke get back up over 100,000. In neighboring Roanoke County, 22% of the population growth comes from immigrants. In my own Botetourt County, the figure is 37%. In Montgomery County, fully one-third of the growth – 33% – comes from immigrants. In the Lynchburg area, where the figures are even higher – 40% of the growth in the city and 41% in neighboring Campbell County come from immigration. Now, take immigration away, and all those places would have still gained population, just not nearly as much. But the question is all these rural localities that, without substantial immigration, are losing population.

Those rural counties can pitch themselves all they want – their quality of life, their broadband connections once there’s universal broadband, their low taxes rates, all that – but unless and until they pitch themselves to immigrants, they’re all fighting over a pie whose size is not really growing. Maybe some will get lucky, but simply from a marketing perspective, they’re only targeting part of the potential market. If a rural county wants new residents, does it really matter whether they come from New Jersey or New Delhi? Or, in this case, Kabul? (The correct answer, if anyone needs any help, is no, it does not.)

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, because they’re all reasonable thoughts. What would all these people do? And then: We’re a poor county. We can’t afford to take in a bunch of refugees.

It’s natural to think of newcomers – no matter where they’re from – as competitors, but that’s not the right way to look at this. One of the things rural Virginia needs to do is to expand its labor pool. Not many companies want to locate in a place where the labor pool is shrinking. That’s a harder sell to make because it’s more abstract, but simply because it’s abstract to the individual doesn’t mean it’s not concrete for some company evaluating its options.

The other thing is to get over the notion of immigrants, particularly the subset of refugees, as “poor, huddled masses.” A study by the Center for Immigration Studies in 2019 found that 26% of the Afghan refugees at the time had a bachelor’s degree. For context, the Center for Immigration Studies is generally regarded as an anti-immigration think tank (it prefers the term “low immigration”), but this particular statistic actually seems a pro-immigration argument. In all of Southside Virginia, not a single locality has a higher educational attainment than those Afghan refugees – Prince Edward County comes close at 24.9% but Prince Edward is also home to not one but two colleges. West of Radford, not a single locality ranks higher – Washington County comes closest at 23.4%. Even in the Roanoke Valley, Roanoke has a lower figure – with 23.2% of adults holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. Put another way, even an anti-immigration group concedes that Afghan refugees have been better educated than much of our present workforce. We’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out “talent attraction” – the Tobacco Commission has a program devoted to this, the Senate Finance Committee talked about it at its November retreat in Roanoke. Here is talent that arrived, literally out of the blue, and is sitting at a military base in Southside waiting to be resettled somewhere. I ask again: Why aren’t localities not lined up at the gates of Fort Pickett to pitch themselves? (Granted, we don’t know the exact demographic profile of those refugees, but there’s no reason to think they’d be much different than the Afghans who made it out before them.)

A quick search of headlines easily turned up these stories:

“UD welcomes Afghan students,” says the University of Delaware’s website in announcing that 56 Afghan students will enroll there.

“Afghan refugees to continue education at Arizona State next semester” – 64 of them, according to Phoenix TV station KTVK.

“Bard poised to add 50 Afghan refugee students” – this on top of 66 who were previously admitted at Bard University, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Our part of Virginia is home to many colleges, all of which would like to bump up their enrollment and surrounding communities that would like to see those colleges do so because that means there’s a greater pool of graduates who might someday choose to stay here. I don’t know how many college-age Afghans might still be at Fort Pickett but for any that are, some college is missing an opportunity for a college night presentation.

I say again: These refugees are assets, and I shouldn’t even have to cite all the studies that show that immigrants – refugees or otherwise – don’t depress a local economy, they help grow it. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll cite them anyway. A 2019 study by the New American Economy, a New York nonprofit, looked specifically at the economic impact that immigrants had on the Roanoke Valley. It found that immigrants a) were more likely to be better educated than the native population, b) were more likely to be entrepreneurs, c) were less likely to be on public assistance, and d) were over-represented in the region’s technology sector. Rather than put pressure on taxpayers, immigrants did exactly the opposite – they lessened it. The report found that immigrants in the Roanoke Valley paid $52 million in federal taxes and $23.1 million in state and local taxes – enough money to cover the costs of the school systems in Salem and Covington combined. After taxes, those immigrants were left with $228.7 million – about four times the size of the Radford University payroll. For those who prefer less statistical, and more anecdotal, evidence, I recommend a drive down Roanoke’s Williamson Road, where you can see firsthand evidence of how immigrants have rejuvenated an entire neighborhood and filled once-empty storefronts with new enterprises.

I’m hardly alone in making this case. Muncie, Indiana, often described as a “typical American city” (you can thank some 1920s sociologists for that), is hoping to resettle 50 Afghan families. Ball State economist Michael Hicks explained to the local paper, the Star Press, why this was a smart idea: “Muncie has struggled with both population loss and brain drain. The Afghan refugees address both concerns, bringing to the region a group with better-than-average human capital who can make a home here.” Now substitute “Muncie” with the name of any locality in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

Is there some locality in Southwest and Southside that doesn’t want to see its population decline turn around? Is there some locality that doesn’t want to improve the size and talent of its labor pool? Is there some locality that doesn’t want potential entrepreneurs? I haven’t run across one yet.

So for all those localities that do want to grow their population, broaden their talent pool and grow potential entrepreneurs, why are they not taking advantage of this opportunity that the tragedy in Afghanistan has put before us?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.