Virginia Immigrants in the Economy: Pillars of Prosperous Communities

Editors’ Note: This excerpt is reposted from the Commonwealth Institute’s article of the same title, June 24, 2019. To read the entire article, complete with graphics, go to

by Laura Goren and Ashley C. Kenneth

Image result for VA immigrants in the communityWhether we are born here or moved here, we all value that Virginia is a great place to raise a family. Immigrants move to Virginia for many of the same reasons as people born in other areas of the United States — job opportunities, good schools, and thriving communities. And Virginia’s immigrants are critical contributors to the state’s economy and communities, adding new energy and ideas everywhere from struggling mill towns seeking a second wind to the worker-hungry tech corridors. Immigrants in Virginia today are typically well educated, long-time residents of the United States, with many becoming U.S. citizens and raising children of their own.

Part of the Community

Today there are more than one million immigrants in Virginia. Immigrant Virginians now make up 12.5% of the state’s overall population, slightly below the national average of 13.7%.

Virginia’s immigrants come from all over the world. In the national debates, immigration from Mexico tends to dominate the image of immigrants. Nationally, Mexican immigrants are indeed the biggest group, making up about 25% of all immigrants. But in Virginia, no single group dominates. Mexican immigrants make up just 5% of all immigrants in Virginia, fourth after people born in El Salvador (11%), India (9%), and Korea (6%). Looking at continent of birth, rather than country of birth, there is a similar diversity. Forty-three percent of Virginia’s immigrant population was born in Asia, the largest group from any continent.

The majority of immigrants that come to the state choose to live in Northern Virginia. Over two-thirds of the state’s immigrant population lives in Northern Virginia, making up around 27% of the total population in that region.

Over half of immigrants in Virginia are naturalized U.S. citizens — foreign-born residents who have lived in the United States for at least five years, applied for naturalization, and passed a citizenship test in addition to other requirements. The naturalized immigrant population in the state has grown nearly 60% in Virginia since 2007. By comparison, the state’s population of noncitizen immigrants has only grown by 14% since 2007.

Contrary to the impression of some, most immigrants in Virginia are not newcomers to the U.S. Most of Virginia’s immigrants have been in the U.S. for a long time. Over 75% of Virginia immigrants have now been in the United States since before 2010. In fact, over half of Virginia’s immigrants have been in the United States for at least 16 years, and there is only modest variation in length of residence in the United States across race among Virginia immigrants.

And while there are few immigrant children living in Virginia, many immigrant adults have U.S.-born children who will be among tomorrow’s innovators and community leaders. In fact, almost 1 in 4 Virginia children have at least one foreign-born parent.

A Strong Immigrant Population Contributes to a Vibrant Virginia Economy

Overall, Virginia’s workforce is aging, with 24% of Virginia’s workers age 55 or older in 2018, up from 19% a decade ago and 13% two decades ago. It will be vital for the state to look to replace these baby-boomers with a new generation of educated and productive workers. Legislators often bemoan the fact that workforce participation within the state is lower than a decade ago, leaving the state vulnerable to a shrinking tax base. What is less commonly noted is the role Virginia immigrants play in supporting the labor force overall. Immigrants participate in Virginia’s workforce at a much higher rate than U.S.-born residents — 72% compared to 65% — and at a rate 6 percentage points higher than the national participation for foreign-born residents.

Virginia is fortunate to have among the highest immigrant workforce participation rates nationally and below average unemployment rates. Most immigrants in Virginia are within the prime working ages of 25 to 54, compared to a much smaller share who are children or seniors. There are strong benefits to the state’s economy from having such an age distribution. Children and seniors often require more public resources in the form of education and health care. The fact that a larger share of Virginia’s immigrant population are of prime working age, coupled with the fact that workers within the 25 to 54 age span have the highest workforce participation rates, means that they are making an outsized contribution to the state’s economy.

The report offers this overall conclusion:

Virginia’s immigrants are key contributors to the state’s growth and prosperity. A majority of these immigrants are U.S. citizens and have lived in the country for more than 10 years. Yet despite how well Virginia’s immigrants have integrated, there are still many challenges that face immigrant communities. Health insurance access, discrimination, language barriers, “brain waste,” and housing costs all pose unique challenges for immigrants – particularly noncitizen immigrants. Fully tapping into the potential of this highly educated and largely working-age population will mean moving at the state and local level to break down barriers and better integrate immigrants into Virginia’s communities and economy.


Categories: Issues, Local, National

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