Posted on May 9, 2024

Desperate for Workers but Dead Set Against Migrant Labor: The West Virginia Dilemma

Paul Kiernan, Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2024

Not many places need warm bodies more than this picturesque town in the Appalachian Mountains. There are so many elderly people and so few workers to take care of them that some old folks have died before getting off the wait list for home visits by health aides.


West Virginia shares a demographic dilemma afflicting many parts of the country: an aging population and unfilled jobs. Decades of migration out of Appalachia have left West Virginia older, less educated and less able to work than other parts of the U.S. Its labor-force participation rate—the share of the 16-and-older population either working or looking for work—was 55.2% in March, the second-lowest in the country.

Some other states, including Maine, Indiana and Utah, have sought immigrants to shore up their workforces. But while West Virginia represents one extreme in its labor needs, it represents another in its resistance to immigration.

Since last year, Republican Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation banning “sanctuary cities” in West Virginia and deployed that state’s own National Guard troops to the Mexican border in Texas. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would: require businesses to conduct additional screening for unauthorized workers; punish companies for transporting migrants who are deportable under U.S. law; create a program to enable state authorities to remove even some immigrants with legal status to work; and appropriate money for Texas to install more razor wire along the Rio Grande.

In a recent television ad, Moore Capito, a former Republican state legislator running to succeed Gov. Justice in November, enacted a scene in which he blocks a van of migrants from entering the state.

There is little evidence that many recent immigrants—either those who entered the country legally or those who didn’t—have had any inclination to go to West Virginia, the only state with fewer residents than it had in 1940. The portion of its population that is foreign-born is 1.8%, the lowest of any state.

Local business groups representing manufacturers, bankers, real-estate agents, builders and auto dealers are lobbying against the proposed worker-screening legislation, which they say would deter needed workers and create burdensome and duplicative requirements.


West Virginia’s elected officials say they aren’t opposed to immigrants who have entered the country legally, only those who haven’t. Lawmakers intent on preventing a feared influx of migrants say they are motivated by rule of law—and a desire to put West Virginians first.

The worker shortage is especially dire in sparsely populated Pendleton County, where Franklin is the county seat.

The dining room at Franklin’s Star Hotel & Restaurant, adorned with taxidermied creatures including a black bear and a bobcat, has had to stop serving breakfast on weekdays or opening on weekends. “We can’t find help anywhere,” said Felicia Kimble, whose family owns the place.


Local historians said the state has long been wary of outsiders, not just from other countries but from other states. “West Virginians don’t want immigration—of any kind,” said Stephen Smoot, editor of the Pendleton Times newspaper. There is even antipathy toward “come-heres” from nearby metropolitan areas who move in and look down their noses at locals, Smoot said.

Voters picked “Wild and Wonderful” as the state official slogan in 2007. Wildlife officials have reintroduced elk, locally extinct for more than a century. For many residents who fish, hunt or simply seek solitude in the hills and hollows, fewer humans is a plus.

“There’s a quality of life that comes from living in a sparsely populated area,” said Smoot. “You don’t have the irritations of constant human contact.”


Rabbi Victor Urecki, who set up a short-lived refugee-resettlement program in Charleston in 2016, said the state has become less welcoming since he moved to the area in the 1980s. He said Trump has tapped into a distrust of outsiders that is part of human nature but more potent in a place that remembers better days. {snip}