Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1915. Courtesy of LIbrary of Congress.

Before “Hamilton,” there was “In The Heights,” a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (with dialogue by Quiara Alegria Hudes) about the Dominican-American community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York.

For those who are only familiar with “Hamilton,” parts of “In The Heights” will sound remarkably similar, just with a more Caribbean beat in parts. Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke will be producing “In The Heights” starting Wednesday although not without some controversy after the theater originally cast a white actress to play a Latina in the main role. That’s been dealt with previously, so no need to rehash all that here.

Instead, let’s explore a different aspect of “In The Heights” – and its relevance to Southwest and Southside Virginia. The musical’s story is fundamentally about the immigrant experience, something that is largely irrelevant to much of Southwest and Southside. Immigration is, to say the least, a hugely controversial and polarizing issue nationwide, yet it’s a subject that we in Southwest and Southside have very little experience with, which puts us in an awkward position to discuss those topics.

After Virginia’s initial settlement – largely by English settlers and enslaved Africans in the east, Germans and Scots-Irish coming down the great valley – the great waves of immigrants that followed largely bypassed Virginia and the South in general. Immigrants instead flowed into the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. That’s where the jobs were, not in the agricultural South (although a lot of immigrants still wound up in the agricultural states of the Great Plains). We wound up with a country that has two very different immigration histories.

In Virginia, three notable exceptions were the port cities around Hampton Roads, early Roanoke and the coal counties in the early days of the coal boom. Ports have always attracted travelers and some of those stayed. As a railroad boom town, Roanoke saw a wave of Greek and Lebanese immigrants whose influence is still felt today; the coal counties drew immigrants from all over. Stonega in Wise County was home to what was called an “Italian colony.” Pocahontas in Tazewell County drew a large number of Hungarian immigrants, whose tradition is still celebrated with a cabbage roll dinner at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.

Even then, however, those numbers were quite small by national standards. In 1910, the first census after the peak year for immigration into the United States (1907), the foreign-born population in Wise County was still just 4.6%, and that was the highest in this part of Virginia. In Tazewell County and Roanoke, the figure was 2.9%. The statewide average that year was just 1.9%. Some counties recorded zero foreign-born residents. By contrast, the national average that year was 14.7%.

While Virginia was at just 1.9% foreign-born that year, Rhode Island was at 33%, Massachusetts 31.5%, New York 30.2%, Connecticut 29.6%, North Dakota 27.1%.

Today’s patterns of immigration are different but in some ways the same – Southern states, Florida excepted, generally see little immigration. As of 2019, the states with the highest foreign-born populations were California at 26.7%, New Jersey 23.4%, New York 22.4,%, Florida 21.1% and Nevada 19.8%. By contrast, the national average is 13.7%. Virginia comes in at 12.7% but 33 states are in single digits, with West Virginia coming in last at 1.6%. Immigration is very uneven.

There are many ironies and observations to glean from these comparisons.

Those who complain about immigration today have lost sight of the nation’s own history. In percentage terms, our immigration today is high but not the highest in American history. It’s certainly different – then it was people coming in through Ellis Island, now it’s often people wading across the Rio Grande (but not as often as you might think), so there are certainly legitimate debates to have about how immigrants arrive. But those who stress how their forebears came here legally shouldn’t delve too far back into history: Until the 1870s, when the United States moved to crack down on Chinese immigration, there were few if any laws governing immigration – people just showed up and got off the boat. Thus no paperwork and therefore no laws to break.

You’ll also notice that five states in 1910 had a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than even our highest foreign-born state today. Today, four states – the aforementioned California, New Jersey, New York and Florida – have a foreign-born percentage that’s 20% or higher. In 1910, 16 states did. Then three states had percentages higher than 30%; today none do.

So, historically speaking, the levels of immigration we’re seeing today aren’t new. They just get attention today for at least one of three reasons:

  1. Many immigrants are arriving in an uncontrolled fashion across our southern border, which concerns those who think immigration should proceed in a more orderly fashion.
  2. Most immigrants today aren’t white, which concerns people who worry about such things. In 1960, 84% of immigrants were from Europe or Canada. Now, 13% are, according to the Pew Research Center. However, the immigrants coming across the Mexican border aren’t necessarily the drivers of this. The biggest single group of immigrants is from Asia, at 28%, so building a wall across the southern border won’t have any impact there. Since 2009, Asian immigration has outnumbered Hispanic immigration and the trendlines suggest that will continue.
  3. We have grown up during an era of unusually low immigration so what is, historically speaking, normal immigration seems abnormal to us.

The first point we’ve talked about. The second point isn’t all that unusual, either. The arrival of Irish immigrants in the early 1800s outraged xenophobes then because they were Catholic. The arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1870s prompted federal legislation to try to ban them. What happened then is that many simply came in through Vancouver and snuck across the Canadian border. Few things are truly new, so it’s the third point I’ll deal with today.

In 1850, 9.7% of the American population was foreign-born – and rising. It rose to 13.2% in 1860. The decades that followed the Civil War saw immigration rise even further, thanks to various political upheavals in Europe and the lure of the American industrial machine. For seven decades, the foreign-born population stayed pretty consistent – and high. The low points came in 1860 and 1920 – at 13.2%. The high points came at 14.4% in 1870, 14.8% in 1890 and 14.7% in 1910. High immigration was the norm.

That changed after 1920 – a combination of more restrictive immigration laws, the disruptions of World War II, and the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe afterwards. By 1970, the foreign-born population in the United States fell to a historic low of 4.7%. That’s why today’s figure of 13.7% seems unusual, when it would feel normal to anyone living in the United States in the late 1800s or early 1900s. In fact, it’s only in the past decade that we’ve gotten back to the figures that prevailed from 1860 to 1920 – or back to normal, as our great-great-grandparents might say.

Now consider all the grand sweep of history from the vantage point of Southwest and Southside Virginia: We’ve experienced almost none of this. We saw very little immigration during the pre-Civil War era (the Irish went to the North and the Germans to the Midwest). We saw very little immigration during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We obviously saw very little immigration when the United States was in its post-war low-immigration period. And we see very little immigration now. After our initial settlement period, we’ve seen very little immigration, period. In a national context, we are the ones who are unusual. That’s why we should be wary whenever we hear some politician refer to rural America as “the real America,” as some have, because, at least in the context of the rural South, that phrase seems fraught with racial and ethnic implications. There’s much to be said for living in rural America – otherwise I wouldn’t be one of those who do – but that’s something that shouldn’t be said. It’s all the real America.

Virginia today is seeing more immigration than it ever has in the past, but those immigrants are, by and large, not in Southwest and Southside. I noted earlier that 12.7% of Virginia’s population is foreign-born – I’m indebted to demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service for these numbers. However, more than two-thirds of the immigrant population is concentrated in Northern Virginia. Once you get outside the urban crescent, the percentage falls to the low single digits. Montgomery County ranks as quite diverse by our standards in this part of the state – about 7.6% of the population there is foreign-born – but would not be by any national standard. The two big metros in the region come in at Roanoke 6.6% and Roanoke County 5.5%, and Lynchburg at 5.3%, followed by Martinsville at 3.5%, Danville and Salem at 3.3% and Bristol at 1%. Many rural areas come in lower yet.

Here’s why this matters – and, beware, this gets touchy. Our demographics may be comfortable for some but they are also bad for our civic health. We face a social challenge if we have a country where some places are quite diverse and others simply aren’t. This gets especially tricky with the way the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College are constituted, because we run into situations where a coalition of some small, overwhelmingly white states exert power over some larger, more diverse states. There are words that start to come to mind to describe that situation and none of them are pretty.

Maybe you don’t care about that. Maybe that’s too abstract. Maybe you like the political results. So let’s move on and consider something else: Our demographics in Southwest and Southside Virginia – our overwhelmingly white demographics – are also bad for business. Here’s why I say that: Those demographics close us off from attracting some of the talent we need to operate a 21st century economy.

A few years ago I sat in on a meeting of the GO Virginia economic development board that covers the region from Appomattox County to Giles County (or, if you prefer, the Lynchburg-Roanoke Valley-New River Valley market). Some business leaders there gingerly confessed that they often found it hard to hire key people because many job candidates who – how shall I say this? – aren’t white were reluctant to move to a place where so few people looked like them.

That’s not the only time it’s come up. A GO Virginia study in 2019 about why the region wasn’t attracting more college graduates came to the same, more formal, conclusion: We’re just too darned white for our own good. “This makes attracting diverse talent difficult, as many new residents are looking for a [community] in which to engage that shares their own culture, making it easier to feel at home,” the report said. “The lack of diversity can also promote a perception of a lack of tolerance, whether it is real or perceived.” A separate GO Virginia study out of Richmond – Richmond! – said the same thing.

This is not a problem we will solve overnight; we’re dealing here with 200 or more years of Southwest and Southside seeing immigration as something that happened to some other place.

Some more interesting context: We think of the United States as a beacon for immigrants – the Statue of Liberty and all that. And we are. But others are more so. Canada has almost always had a higher percentage of immigrants than the United States has. Since the first Canadian census in 1871, only once – in 1901 – has the percentage of foreign-born been lower than in the United States, and then not by much – their 13.1% compared to our 13.6%. That was also the low point of Canadian immigration, which means their low point was very close to our high point.. The record high in Canada for foreign-born population was 22.3%, in both 1921 and 1931, both at a time when American immigration was dropping. When the foreign-born population hit a low of 4.7% in the United States 1970, Canada’s figure also dropped, but only to 15.3% – higher than the U.S. has ever had. Right now, 21.7% of Canadian residents are immigrants.

Now, that’s not to say that American immigration policy should emulate Canada’s – different countries, different standards, although Canada does seem to have a keener appreciation of how younger immigrants are useful in paying taxes to fund services for an aging population, something that Americans have been slower to grasp. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advanced that notion – using a speech at then-Bluefield College in 2013 to do so as he geared up to run for president and you see what happened to him. Instead, the point is to put Southwest and Southside in a continental context to help us understand just how unusual we are, and why that distinctiveness is not always to our advantage in the marketplace.

So, go see “In The Heights,” if musicals are your thing – and reflect upon how that show could be set in Washington Heights but never be set in, say, Washington County.

Dwayne Yancey

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