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Immigrants and the Economy: The Foreign-born Community’s Contributions to Virginia

Posted October 20, 2016 • Filed Under Economy



As election day approaches rapidly, the national dialogue has covered a gamut of topics, one of the most prominent being the role of immigrants in the United States. There is no doubt that immigration has played an integral part in the history of this country, particularly in relation to the economy. As demographics continue to shift, the convergence of strongly-held opinions and the barrage of  information about immigration in the public sphere can often be confusing and begs a variety of questions. For instance, what is the relationship between immigrants and the economy? Do immigrants ultimately help or hurt economic growth? How does this relationship look different at the national, state, and local levels? Today’s post is the first installment in a short series about immigrants and the economy that will be featured on the NewBridges blog. To start off the discussion, we will look at the role of immigrants in  Virginia’s economy and in the Shenandoah Valley. Check back every few weeks for different blog posts covering the correlation between immigrants and the economic state of our country!

Immigrants and the Virginia Economy

Virginia’s immigrant population is large and multifaceted. According to research recently published by The Commonwealth Institute, Virginia’s immigrant population is the 9th largest in the nation, with over 1 million foreign-born persons residing in the state. These immigrants come from all parts of the world, with the majority coming from Central America and Southeast Asia. Virginia’s immigrant population is an important economic block–with high rates of education, employment, and income, these people contribute to the success of the state’s labor market. Approximately 22 percent of foreign-born residents have a bachelor’s degree as opposed to 21.1 percent of native born Virginia residents. Furthermore, Virginia’s immigrant population tends to have higher rates of employment, with the current statistic resting at 72.8 percent. The average for native-born individuals is slightly lower, at 64.9 percent. Overall, households in Virginia tend to have high median incomes. Immigrant households in Virginia have a median income of $73,420, while U.S.-born households have a median income of $65,485. These statistics illustrate the success of the immigrant workforce in our state, and open up broader questions to ponder.

A comparison of employment and education levels for Native and Foreign-born residents of the Shenandoah Valley.

One argument that arises frequently in the anti-immigrant narrative hinges on the idea that immigrants come to the United States and subsequently edge native-born citizens out of jobs. Could that phenomenon be happening in Virginia, given that the aforementioned data show that the foreign-born population has higher rates of education, employment, and median income than native-born Virginia residents? Without conducting extensive additional research, it is hard to tell; however, certain factors elucidate these numbers. One primary factor to consider is the age of immigrants. According to data published by the Migration Policy Institute, the majority of immigrants who came to the United States in 2014 were in prime working years, between their 20’s and 50’s. Meanwhile the United States’s population, including Virginia’s, continues to get older, funneling more people into the retirement system and out of the workforce, making young, working age immigrants a critical asset to the economy. Indeed, according to The Commonwealth Institute, at the local level, “the high share of immigrant residents who are working-age adults help balance the large number of elderly native-born residents of [the Shenandoah Valley].” Additionally, most immigrants arrive in the country with the intent to work hard and seek a prosperous life. A stable job is crucial for immigrants to thrive, and may also be a motivating factor that presents itself in these statistics. Finally, immigrants who have been in the country for longer amounts of time are able to establish themselves and start businesses in their communities. This is frequently the case in Virginia, where immigrants make up a substantial part of the Main Street businesses in regions around the state.

The Faces of Virginia’s Main Street Businesses

According to a 2016 study by The Commonwealth Institute, while immigrants constitute only 12 percent of Virginia’s population, they make up 34 percent of Main Street business owners in the state. The Commonwealth Institute defines Main Street businesses as “the local shops and services that provide for a variety of everyday needs and that generally have a physical storefront,” including grocery and convenience stores, beauty salons, restaurants, and laundromats. The increase in immigrant-owned Main Street businesses in our state parallels the national trend–from 2000 to 2013, 100 percent of the growth in Main Street businesses was because of immigrants. In fact, this expansion took place in 31 out of the 50 major largest metropolitan areas in the country, which includes regions of Virginia such as Richmond and Arlington. Growth in the Main Street business sector has contributed to neighborhood revitalization and economic advancement in areas across the country and the state.

In Virginia, 75 percent of grocery owners are immigrants, along with 66 percent of laundry services and 65 percent of gasoline stations. Virginia’s Main Street business owners are also diverse, representing many ethnic backgrounds. Korea, India, Vietnam, and China are countries with the highest representation in Virginia’s Main Street businesses, with other countries from Latin America, Europe, and Africa also included in the mix. Forty percent of foreign-born Main Street business owners are women, who represent the highly entrepreneurial attitudes of many immigrants residing in Virginia. For example, within the Harrisonburg community several main street businesses are run by immigrants, including grocery stores like Food Maxx International Market and La Morena, and restaurants like Boboko Indonesian Cafe. The presence of immigrant-owned Main Street businesses adds intercultural vibrancy to the valley while simultaneously augmenting the local economy.

Economic Contributions in the Shenandoah Valley

The 26,000 immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley are an asset to the local economy. Immigrants who own Main Street businesses in the Valley, such as those mentioned before, are exemplary of the entrepreneurial mindset in the area. Approximately one out of every 11 entrepreneurs in the Valley is an immigrant, which totals about 2,000 self employed individuals. Other immigrants in the area contribute to the economy through their work in sectors such as manufacturing, professional and scientific services, retail, construction, agriculture, and health care. The immigrant population in the Shenandoah Valley is highly employed; however, many immigrant households receive relatively low incomes in comparison to the native-born households in the same area. In fact, many immigrant households live below the poverty line, spend large amounts of their paychecks on rent, and face challenges gaining access to health insurance. While these challenges can be straining, the Valley is a comfortable place for immigrants to live–more so than other areas of Virginia, like the Washington, D.C. and Richmond metro areas,  where the cost of living is much higher.

Here is a break-down of the median incomes for both Native-born and Foreign-born Virginians.

It is important for native and foreign-born residents of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley to understand the contributions that immigrants make to the state and local economies and help them flourish. From local business owners to workers in the manufacturing industry, the work that immigrants do is valuable to the state and the country.


Check back in two weeks for the next post in this series, which will highlight the entrepreneurship of women who have immigrated to the United States!


About the Author: Lindsay Wright is a 2016 graduate of James Madison University, where she double majored in Communication Studies and Spanish. She is currently completing a nine-month internship at NewBridges, where she is producing content for the blog and getting experience working with clients. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time outside in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Contact Lindsay at [email protected]