essays and articles by david g allen

Immigrants Helped Shape West Virginia


Immigration policy has become an emotional issue in the post-9/11 era. Americans in every state advocate building a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. We want every in-bound cargo container inspected for stowaways before it’s loaded on a ship in a foreign port. Our policy towards Cubans remains to turn them back to Castro. We want barriers to immigration. We want America to be a gated community.

It does surprise me that most West Virginians parrot Pat Buchanan when it comes to closing the borders. In the last five years, how many times have I heard disparaging remarks about Mexicans taking “our jobs”? Although many West Virginians entrust their lives to physicians who were born in the Middle East or India, few of them bother to learn to correctly pronounce their doctor’s surname. I guess that Rajiv and Ahmed can stay but Juan and Arturo must leave.

Before West Virginians get too high and mighty about their American heritage, I would suggest that everyone read “Transnational West Virginia” published by WVU Press. This collection of essays is an eye-opener for folks who always thought that the Mountain State was a homogenous English-German colony. It turns out that we are more diverse than you think.

Were it not for iron puddlers from Wales, Wheeling would never have become a steel town. Were it not for glassworkers from Belgium, Clarksburg would never have had a glass industry. Immigrants made our industries hum.

Immigration was considered so important to the economic development of West Virginia that the state appointed Joseph Diss Debar as Immigration Commissioner in 1864. Diss Debar, a native of Switzerland who lived in Doddridge County, is best known for designing the state seal. But in his role as commissioner, he was charged with soliciting immigrants to come to West Virginia.

In the closing chapter of “Transnational West Virginia”, the circle is completed when 750,000 West Virginians leave the state between 1940 and 1960 for jobs in Akron and other industrial towns. Our out-migration continues to this day and is one of the main reasons for the state’s dismal economy.

Though it represents just a sliver of American immigration since 1864, “Transnational West Virginia” makes two salient points about immigrants. First, immigrants are drawn to areas where opportunities to make a living exist. And second, immigrants do assimilate into the American culture, just not necessarily in the first generation. In most every situation, their children are Americanized by the public school system.

On a national scale, we need to tailor our immigration policy to optimize these two facts. We need unskilled laborers to clean hotel rooms as well as highly skilled software engineers for our tech industry. We need to make sure that our newly-arrived immigrants understand that they can still appreciate the ways of their old country, but that their ultimate goal in coming here is assimilation into American society.

Allowing immigrants to forego learning English as their primary language is nothing but politically correct folly. Since Day One, second-language ghettos have bred crime and criminals. Requiring English literacy has been and remains the pathway to assimilation and good citizenship.

The last time I checked, America was not a labor union with a seniority system. Our system thrives on competition; nobody gets points for the date of entry of his ancestors. If you believe a Mexican is going to take your job, then work harder or get smarter. America has consistently rewarded productivity and ingenuity, not seniority.

America will probably be the land of opportunity for most of this century. As such, we will continue to be a magnet for immigrants. And that is a good thing. Immigrants who thirst for the American dream will only make our country more vibrant. Closing the borders, on the other hand, will only speed our downfall.

When our leaders debate immigration policy, they should hold a picture of the Statue of Liberty with one hand and a picture of Elian Gonzalez being held at gunpoint with the other. These images represent the bookends of the debate, and they leave plenty of latitude for a sensible immigration plan.

statue of liberty       

immigration officer and elian gonzalez


David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

“Transnational West Virginia” is available at 

"Immigrants Helped Shape West Virginia" originally appeared in the June 16, 2006 issue of the West Virginia State Journal and was reprinted in the June 18, 2006 edition of the Clarksburg (WV) Sunday Exponent-Telegram




Copyright 1990-2006  David G. Allen