Report: Virginia’s immigrants making strong contribution to state economy

Virginia Mercury

A new report from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis says immigrants are key contributors to the state’s overall economy, despite challenges that include health insurance access, discrimination, language barriers, “brain waste” and housing costs.

The left-leaning Richmond institute says that, as many parts of Virginia struggle to find enough workers, many immigrants are “relatively young, well educated, fluent in English and more likely to participate in the workforce.”

The one million immigrants in Virginia make up 12.5 percent of the state population. More than two-thirds live in Northern Virginia, where they make up 27 percent of the population.

And while immigration from Mexico tends to dominate the national debate, Virginia’s immigrant population comes from a wide variety of countries.

“Mexican immigrants make up just 5% of all immigrants in Virginia, fourth after people born in El Salvador (11%), India (9%), and Korea (6%),” the report says. “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.”

Most of them are also between the prime working ages of 25 and 54.

“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,” the report states. “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 percent compared to 65 percent — and at a rate six percentage points higher than the national participation for foreign-born residents.”

But the report also points to public policies that would help address the challenges immigrants face.

More than one in three noncitizen residents lack access to health insurance in Virginia, “even worse than in the country as a whole,” the report states.

“While the national uninsured rate for noncitizens has dropped 16 percentage points since 2009, Virginia’s rate has dropped just five percentage points,” it adds.

That means immigrants face all the challenges that come with lack of health insurance, like large medical bills and a lack of preventative care. Virginia is also one of only six states to require legal, noncitizens to work for at least 10 years before they qualify for Medicaid.

Housing and poverty remain problems for the state’s immigrants, as does what’s called “brain waste”: when people aren’t working jobs that match their educational attainment.

“In Virginia, 21 percent of college-educated immigrants 25 and older are working in low-skill jobs or are unemployed. This is well above the average for U.S.-born Virginians,” the report states. “Lawmakers, employers, and workforce development officials all have a role to play in reducing this needless inefficiency and maximizing opportunity for the state.”