Distribution of Virginia's immigrants. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Public Affairs, VCU.
Distribution of Virginia's immigrants. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Public Affairs, VCU.

First of a three-part series.

Craig County is different from Northern Virginia in so many ways that they are hard to count, but here’s the one we’ll deal with today.

Northern Virginia has the state’s highest population of immigrants. In Manassas Park, the foreign-born population constitutes 36.1% of the city’s population. In Fairfax County, 31.1%. They are the two most immigrant-heavy localities in Virginia. Craig County is the least – at 0.2% of the population.

That may not surprise anyone but this might: Southeastern Lunenburg County in Southside is more like Northern Virginia than you might imagine. In Lunenburg’s census tract 9303, some 19.1% of the population is foreign-born, not that different from Falls Church (19.2%).

These are some of the findings from a recent study prepared by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University for the state’s Office of New Americans and the Virginia Department of Social Services. It offers up 141 pages of findings about the state’s immigrant community, plus nifty interactive displays on the overall immigrant population and the languages being spoken.

Some of the numbers aren’t surprising, others are – and some may challenge your perception of the state’s immigrant community. So let’s dig in, shall we?

Growth of Virginia’s foreign-born community. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

1.Virginia’s immigrant population has more than tripled over the past 30 years.

In 1990, the state’s immigrant population was about 300,000 and constituted 5% of the population. By 2020, the immigrant population was more than 1 million and represented 12.6% of the population. This is consistent with the national growth of the immigrant population.

These figures also show how Virginia is becoming more like the rest of the nation. In 1990, immigrants constituted 7.9% of the nation’s population, so Virginia’s 5% was below the national average. By 2021, the national figure was 13.6%, so Virginia was still below but closer to the national average.

It’s important to note here that while these percentages have risen, they are not out of line with much of our nation’s history. We only think they are because most of us grew up during a period of abnormally low immigration. From 1860 to 1930, the United States consistently had a foreign-born population that was in double digits, percentagewise, topping out at 14.8% in 1890 and then hitting 14.7% in 1910. Stricter (some would say racist) immigration laws enacted in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II all conspired to lower immigration. By 1970, only 4.7% of the nation’s population was foreign-born. Since then, immigration has been rising again. The current figure of 13.6% may seem high to us, but it’s lower than all but one figure recorded in the late 1800s and early 1990s – 1880 saw 13.3% of the population being foreign-born. Put another way, what we’re seeing today is what our forebears would call a traditional level of immigration. The only thing different about it today is where those immigrants come from and how they get here. We should also keep in mind that for much of America’s history there were no immigration laws: People simply showed up and got off the boat. Not until 1882 did the federal government start trying to regulate immigration; part of the impetus then was to prevent the arrival of Chinese immigrants. President Benjamin Harrison was as vexed by illegal immigration as some are today: Many Chinese immigrants simply sailed into Vancouver, British Columbia, and then sneaked across the Canadian border. Border security then was focused on the northwestern border, not the southwestern one. But I digress.

Where Virginia’s immigrants are from. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.
Where Virginia’s immigrants are from. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

2. Virginia’s immigrants are primarily from Asia (42.4%) and Latin America (35.9%), followed by Africa (10.5%) and Europe (9.8%).

However, the top “sending” nation is El Salvador, followed by India, Mexico, South Korea and the Philippines.

Educational levels of Virginia’s immigrants. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

3. Virginia’s immigrants are often better-educated than native-born Virginians.

The report says that 46.9% of Virginia’s naturalized immigrants have a college degree; the statewide average is 45.9% but in much of rural Virginia that figure plunges into the teens or sometimes below. In fact, not a single locality west of Albemarle County has an educational attainment as high as Virginia’s naturalized immigrant population – only Montgomery County comes close at 46.3%.

That said, there are wide variations within the immigrant community. While a plurality are better educated than native-born Americans, a significant percentage is less educated. Among native-born Americans, only 8.4% of adults haven’t completed high school, but 28.9% of noncitizens haven’t. Let me express some frustration with the data here: The report gives the percentage of immigrants who have completed college, but when it comes to those who haven’t finished high school it breaks the data into two groups – naturalized citizens and noncitizens – so we don’t have an overall number. Naturalized citizens tend to have more education than immigrants who are not (yet) naturalized citizens. In any case, there is a subset of immigrants who don’t have much education, but they are not representative of immigrants overall.

4. Immigrants constitute a significant economic force.

“In 2019, immigrants in Virginia represented $33.6 billion in spending power and paid $13.4 billion in taxes, including $4.1 billion in state and local taxes,” the report says. “Research shows that 19% of Virginia businesses were owned by immigrants in 2019 and these businesses made up 34% of the ‘main street’ business community.” They also constitute a significant share of the workforce, particularly in some critical fields: “Immigrants represent 22.8% of the STEM workforce, 31% of physicians, 14% of nurses and 18.7% of health aides in Virginia.”

5. The so-called “undocumented” immigrants are also a significant part of the economy.

These three lines show the complexity of the issue: “Most undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for a significant period – 74% have five or more years of residence and 33% have 15-plus years in the United States. Sixty-nine percent are in prime workforce age groups between 25-54. Seventy percent of the undocumented population are employed.”  This seems a population too large and too rooted to simply deport, even if we could. (These are state figures, by the way.)  The present labor shortage – which is ultimately rooted in demographics, aka declining birth rates and the pandemic-induced but ultimately inevitable retirement of many baby boomers – means that these workers, whatever their status, are valuable to the economy. That was the point that Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, made when he spoke in Danville in September as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series. His industry sector needs more workers; here they are. He made a plea for politicians to cool their rhetoric and work out some practical solutions. (I discussed this in more depth in an earlier column.)

These aren’t just workers, either, they are entrepreneurs. “The undocumented population also includes an estimated 20,100 entrepreneurs, about a quarter of the number of immigrant entrepreneurs overall,” the report says of Virginia’s immigrant population. “Estimates by New American Economy show undocumented household income at $5.7 billion and tax payments of $673.8 million (including $258.8 million in Virginia state and local taxes).” How big is that $673.8 million? Well, consider that Radford University’s budget is $249.9 million. Politicians can showboat all they want on immigration but these are the fiscal realities. If you want to think of it this way, these immigrants are paying the freight for several state universities.

6. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

Nationally, “foreign-born men between the ages of 18 and 39 are incarcerated at a rate that is one-fourth the rate of the native-born men,” the report says. “Neighborhoods with higher concentration[s] of immigrants have much lower rates of crime than non-immigrant neighborhoods.”  

7. Virginia’s immigrant community is not evenly distributed.

Two-thirds of the state’s immigrants live in Northern Virginia. Much of Southwest Virginia is nearly devoid of immigrants. I devoted an earlier column to how immigration has historically bypassed this part of Virginia, but the current numbers (or lack thereof) are certainly notable. Out of Virginia’s 133 localities, only in 15 does the immigrant population exceed 10% of the total. In 68 localities, the immigrant population is less than 3.5% of the population. In six localities – Bland County, Craig County, Dickenson County, Highland County, Russell County, Tazewell County – the immigrant share of the population is less than 1%. Politicians who talk about rural America as “the real America” are simply wrong. If the national average for immigrants is 13.6%, then the real America is closer to being Winchester, where the immigrant share is 13.2%, with Henrico County just behind it at 12.9%. I’m sorry to upend the story arcs of so many country music singers, but rural areas are the ones that are statistically at odds with the American experience.

Virginia’s immigrants by census tract. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

8. There are pockets of immigrants in parts of Virginia outside the urban crescent.

You can see in the map above how Virginia’s immigrant community is distributed. However, these localitywide numbers often obscure smaller concentrations of immigrants at the neighborhood level – or, as the government prefers, census tracts. There are parts of downstate Virginia that have immigrant populations that rival Northern Virginia. For instance, in Blacksburg, the census tract bounded by U.S. 460, Prices Fork Road and Merrimac Road has an immigrant population of 26.7%, which makes it akin to Alexandria at 27.2%. One part of Accomack County – east of Parksley in census tract 904 – the foreign-born population is 21.6%, or slightly higher than Falls Church and slightly lower than Prince William County. In one census tract in Rockingham County, northeast of Harrisonburg – census tract 105 – the foreign-born population is 20.3%, or slightly higher than Falls Church. We find the same 20.3% percentage in Farmville – census tract 9302.01. I pointed out the Lunenburg County number above – 19.1%. Roanoke’s Williamson Road neighborhood – census tract 4 in official lingo – has a foreign-born population of 15.7%. That won’t surprise anyone who has driven on Williamson Road and seen all the stores catering to one immigrant community or another. In Henry County, census tract 101 just west of Martinsville has an immigrant population of 13.5%. In northeast Danville, census tract 13.03, the figure is 13.3%. Those figures may seem unusual in the context of those communities but wouldn’t be in Northern Virginia. In Centerville, in Fairfax County, census tract 4913.03 has an immigrant share of 52.9%. Once again, those numbers may seem high to us today but they aren’t high in a historical context. In 1850, the foreign-born population of Milwaukee was 63.7%. In 1900, the foreign-born population in North Dakota (and their American-born children) constituted 70% of the population. The state had a higher foreign-born population than New York City. 

Let’s stop here today. Tomorrow, I’ll look at how many languages are spoken in Virginia – and where.

Dwayne Yancey

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