In August of 2019, patrons of the Tortilla Factory restaurant in Barboursville, West Virginia were met with a closed restaurant and a handwritten note that read “Hungry? Thank ICE. Montani Semper Liberi.” The Tortilla Factory was just one establishment that was targeted by ICE raids last summer; local Reddit users claimed that arrests were also made at an apartment complex in Morgantown and Sabraton, a nearby suburb.
Morgantown is home to the University of West Virginia, and is a liberal hotspot in one of the states that was most influential in securing President Trump’s 2016 victory. Historically, immigration issues have rarely been at the forefront of local politics in the Mountain State. But as the Trump administration continues to politicize these issues, many West Virginia residents are beginning to take notice.
The note at the Tortilla Factory is a powerful symbol of West Virginia’s history of self-determination and rebellion: “Montani Semper Liberi” translates to “mountaineers are always free.” The state was once part of a much larger Virginia, and earned statehood in 1863 amid the Civil War. This secession was fueled by longstanding resentment towards the Richmond government as well as loyalty to the Union; in many ways, the Civil War was simply an opportunity to realize a long-held dream of statehood.
Despite the fact that the Confederate state of Virginia did not approve the secession, President Lincoln begrudgingly allowed West Virginia to become its own state. However, this history of rebellion and deep desire for self-determination is often overshadowed by harmful stereotypes. The state began to industrialize in the 1870s, driven by its plentiful natural resources, most notably coal. A wave of European immigrants in the early twentieth century reinforced this growing economy.
But in recent years, West Virginia has grappled with increasing rates of poverty and unemployment, largely fueled by the decline in manufacturing and natural resources jobs due to automation. The 2008 recession hit West Virginia especially hard, and recovery has been slow.
Despite the large influx of immigrants in the early twentieth century, West Virginia today is home to the smallest immigrant community in the country; only 1.6% of the population were born outside of the United States, or around 30,000 people. To many, this is unsurprising. Immigrants are often attracted to states with plentiful job opportunities, and West Virginia has few. Additionally, the state is notoriously rural and white, even ranking among the top five least racially diverse states.
The small size of the immigrant population means that from a demographic perspective, it is much different from the immigrant population of the United States overall. In West Virginia, India is the most common country of origin, closely followed by China, México, and African Nations. It is also important to note that immigrants are more likely than native-born West Virginians to hold an advanced degree and more likely to work in healthcare, management, or professional occupations.
West Virginia is also unique in that the state lacks established immigrant communities. Such communities are beginning to form in larger cities Charleston and Morgantown, but many immigrants are dispersed across the state in search of employment. The poultry farms in the Eastern Panhandle also provide many jobs. From a linguistic perspective, 74 percent of immigrants speak English well, and only 2 percent do not speak English at all.
Despite the small size and relative invisibility of the state’s immigrant population, the state is relatively dangerous for undocumented immigrants. In fact, West Virginia has the highest arrest rate for undocumented immigrants despite harboring the second-smallest undocumented population. But unlike the majority of raids in the past, the ICE activity in August 2019 did not go unnoticed. Students at the University of West Virginia organized protests, and the West Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union began fundraising to create the full-time Immigrants’ Rights Campaign Coordinator position.
That’s when Jackie Lozano was hired. Originally from México but raised in North Carolina, Lozano’s passion for supporting the immigrant communities in the state that she now calls home is evident. In her position with the ACLU, she works on a myriad of projects, including lobbying, legal work, and community building. Today she is grappling with the effects of COVID-19 on her work and the communities that she serves.
“Now I’m a little bit more on just the organizing virtually part of it and trying to keep up with everything that’s going on in Morgantown, [Charleston], and the Eastern Panhandle…just trying to make sure that everybody is okay and that nobody needs anything, or how I can help them,” she says.
When asked why the recent slew of ICE raids attracted so much attention, Lozano explains that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance has brought the concept of immigration as a political issue to the consciousness of many West Virginians. It was the recent ICE activity that transformed immigration from a political issue affecting the rest of the country into a tangible issue with relevance to West Virginia.
Following the raid at the Tortilla Factory, Milton residents Phillip and Maurine Skeens told WOWK news that “ICE has been doing its job, keeping us safe, keeping the illegals out. I praise our president for the consideration of our safety.” But although immigration issues have only recently become important to many residents, they have long been present, albeit unnoticed.
One key issue is the anti-immigrant sentiment that resonates throughout the state. According to a 2019 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, 62 percent of West Virginians expressed negative feelings about immigrants. “I think it might be a little more than sixty percent,” says Lozano.“It feels like it sometimes, but there are definitely a lot of negative stereotypes that people believe.” The small size of the state’s immigrant community is an underlying theme throughout the discussion of the unique issues faced by immigrants in the Mountain State.
At the most basic level, this small population means many West Virginians have never personally met an immigrant. Additionally, many parts of the state do not have internet access, making it difficult to find reputable resources. Therefore many residents must rely on potentially biased news sources and word of mouth. Lozano explains that there is a general perception that immigrants are “criminals and rapists.” “They don’t think of me at the grocery store with my three-year-old,” she adds.
“They see whatever is being fed to them by the main media outlets and recent administrations.” Another common piece of anti-immigrant rhetoric—the concept of “stealing jobs”—is amplified by West Virginia’s high unemployment rate of 12.9 percent in May 2020: Lozano says that, from her personal experience, “one thing that I’ve noticed here is that [West Virginians] are very defensive with what they have because there’s not much here.”
This negative public opinion is coupled with a profound lack of support services and culturally and linguistically appropriate resources, mostly for populations that speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Arabic. Lozano names just three nonprofit organizations in addition to the ACLU that work to advocate for immigrants: Catholic Charities of West Virginia, Interfaith Ministries, and Mountain State Justice. The ACLU is a public interest law firm that seeks to protect constitutional rights, particularly those of historically marginalized groups. With branches in all fifty states, the staff at the West Virginia branch are uniquely focused on local issues such as criminal justice reform, defending democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and immigrants’ rights.
At the ACLU, she is the only staff member who works on immigration full-time. This means that she must juggle the legal and community building aspects of the job while also directing most of her attention towards lobbying during the legislative session. Her work requires her to wear many hats: in recent months, Lozano herself had to compile, fact-check, translate, and distribute COVID-19 public health resources to immigrant communities.
When asked why West Virginia has so few nonprofits that focus on immigration, she again points to the small immigrant population and explains that many people do not believe that there is a need for more support. But as someone on the front lines of immigration advocacy, she assures any skeptics that there is a profound need, especially as the immigrant community grows. She adds that “we just need to have somebody to help us pull everybody together and work together across the state.”
She also acknowledges geographic barriers, explaining that the ACLU, Catholic Charities of West Virginia, and Interfaith Ministries are all located in Charleston, and the Mountain State Justice law clinic in Morgantown. While these cities are each home to burgeoning immigrant communities, this excludes the large population that is scattered across the state.
This negative public opinion seems to mirror the precedent set by political figures. In an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle, Walter D. Kamphoefner points out that Trump introduced an immigration restriction initiative at a rally in West Virginia, despite the fact that many residents are likely more invested in economic aspects of his platform. In fact, Trump was able to rally support in the state by showing his commitment to reinvigorating the coal industry. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has not spoken on immigration often, but when he has, his stance has been inconsistent.
After President Trump allowed governors to refuse the resettlement of refugees for the first time in US history, Governor Justice stated that he would continue to allow them to settle in the state. However, Justice also stated “I hope and pray we never have sanctuary cities here.” This stance is reflected in the courts: the ACLU successfully opposed House Bill 2808—the Anti-Sanctuary City bill—in 2019, which would have required local law enforcement to enforce immigration law.
In West Virginia, the language barrier is yet another formidable obstacle. Only 2.5 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, so interpretation and ESL resources are often incredibly difficult to find. Lozano cites the recent passing of “some positive legislation” as a beacon of hope for immigration advocates.
Lozano is referring to Senate Bill 623, which allows non-citizens to obtain a teaching certificate, and House Bill 4365, which allows English Language Learners to receive college credits for ELL courses.
But cases related to immigration do not appear in West Virginia’s courts often, and when they do, non-native English speakers are confronted with a near insurmountable barrier: it is very difficult to find professional interpreters. And despite the recent legislation, ESL students are faced with several obstacles as well. The state’s immigrant population is relatively diverse, including people who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Arabic, among others. Lozano points out that ESL teachers who are trained to help native Spanish speakers may not be able to provide adequate support to students who speak other languages.
And this linguistic diversity becomes a problem in the nonprofit sector as well: Lozano herself is responsible for translating many important resources, and she only speaks Spanish and English. There is a desperate need for bilingual staff and volunteers who are able to reach others.
The state of West Virginia is at a turning point. The Trump administration has caused many residents to become more outspoken about immigration, both for and against. And although anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more commonplace in a state where historically it has seldom been a key issue, the creation of Lozano’s position suggests that some changes have been positive.
“I’m starting to see people opening up more,” she says, “now we have more people actually wanting to work with us…fight the fight with us.” From a personal standpoint, Lozano adds that she is “not trying to change their minds or force them to change their minds, but basically help educate them on the reality of things.” She would like the people of West Virginia to know that “we are people just like you, we have families just like you, and we have dreams and hopes just like you.”
How to Help
The ACLU-WV will gladly accept donations through their website at acluwv.org. They are also in need of volunteers (remote or local) who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin or Arabic. The ACLU also runs the West Virginia Immigration Coalition, a group for local community leaders who want to help advocate for their immigrant neighbors. If you are interested in joining the coalition or learning more, contact Jackie Lozano through acluwv.org.
Featured Image: Edwiin Parra stands in front of Charleston Area Medical Center, where he works as a nurse. Originally from México, Parra’s story was highlighted on the ACLU’s Many Roads Home campaign. / Courtesy of the ACLU West Virginia
Etti Cooper | Bates College
Etti is a rising junior at Bates College, where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and biology. She hopes to pursue a career in biology and is passionate about advocating for diversity and equity in the historically white, male dominated STEM field. While not from an immigrant family herself, she was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, a city with a large Latinx immigrant population. As she began to learn Spanish, she began to learn about the challenges faced by immigrants, particularly the population in her hometown. Etti hopes to better understand immigration policy from a legislative perspective as well as amplifying the stories of immigrants. She hopes that her work as an Immigration Writer will allow her to educate others as she continues to educate herself.