Posted: May 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm

By Sarah Davis, Miriah Lee and Bryan Popkin

Doru Pacurari, a native of Romania, arrived in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1998 with a dream and a student visa. After gaining admission into the forestry program at West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, he began the long slog toward citizenship of the United States

Pacurari is one of many immigrants in West Virginia who came to the United States on a legal visa. But many others arrive illegally, although the number who come to West Virginia is much lower than in surrounding states.  According to estimates from the Federation for American Immigration reform (FAIR), undocumented immigrants comprise less than one-half percent of the state’s total population. By comparison, in Virginia undocumented immigrants total 3.2 percent of the population and in 1.4 percent in Pennsylvania.

One of the reasons West Virginia has a smaller population of illegal immigrants is because it’s harder for them to find the kind of low-paying service jobs that don’t require paperwork and often involve under-the-table payments, such as restaurant work, landscaping or construction.

“[We] have a relatively small illegal immigrant population due to the fact that we are not on either coast and don’t have the kind of work opportunities…most illegal immigrants seek out in order to stay afloat, ” says Michael C. Blumental, Visiting Professor of Law at WVU and co-director of the Immigration Law clinic.

Photo By Greg Ellis Immigrants in West Virginia taking part in a naturalization ceremony last March at the WVU College of Law

Photo By Greg Ellis
Immigrants in West Virginia taking part in a naturalization ceremony last March at the WVU College of Law

Yet the Mountain State’s percentage of naturalized citizens is as high as the national average: 46 percent. (By comparison, Pennsylvania’s rate of naturalization is 39 percent). The high rate of naturalization in West Virginia may be due to the fact that many immigrants who come here are or become highly educated, in large part because of the presence of universities like WVU.

Blumental says that educated people are naturalized at a higher rate “simply because they are more likely to know the ropes, speak and write good English, have access to legal and educational opportunities that enable them to ultimately achieve citizenship.” According to the Immigration Policy Center, 51 percent of foreign-born persons in West Virginia who were naturalized in 2009 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Under the immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress, more visas would be available to highly educated immigrants and both legal and illegal immigrants would have an easier path to citizenship. If the bill becomes law, immigrants who arrived here before December 2011 would be able to move towards legal citizenship, a process that would take around 13 years.

According to an ABC News article, 68 percent of undocumented immigrants say they have already been living here for more than a decade, while almost 22 percent say that they have been living illegally in the United States for five to ten years.

The Immigration Policy Center statistics show that immigrants in West Virginia– legal and illegal — are an influential part of the state’s economy. In 2007, for instance, Asian owned businesses in West Virginia had total sales of $546 million. Latino owned businesses had sales of $176 million in 2007 and employed 1,430 people.

Blumental believes that immigrants are attracted to the Mountain State for its natural beauty, low cost of living and relative tolerance when compared to some of the more southern states. “The fact is that we do not have a tradition of harassing suspected undocumented aliens in the way Arizona, Texas and Florida are known for doing,” he says.

Pacurari says that when he became a citizen, it was the start of a new beginning for him and his family. He has a masters in computer science and now works for WVU in the Student Systems Management office writing computer code for various online platforms. He became a U.S. citizen at WVU’s first naturalization ceremony in 2012 at the College of Law. “Everybody could feel the excitement in the room,” Pacuarari says “It felts like a new beginning.”

Photo by Greg Ellis On March 9, 2012 Doru  Pacurari,  and his daughter Paula received their naturalization certificates.

On March 9, 2012 Doru Pacurari and his daughter, Paula, received their naturalization certificates. Photo by Greg Ellis.