In the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States of America was a refuge for people of all backgrounds. There were certainly laws limiting and even prohibiting certain groups, but compare the U.S. to any other country of the past two centuries, and it’s obvious why this was the No. 1 destination for people needing a new start.
People were fleeing violence, instability, economic hardship and persecution, seeking better lives for themselves and their families. That history of ours should be sacred, because literally hundreds of millions of lives improved, and many were in fact saved.
We have thrived precisely because of this historical fact. When immigrants come to this country, they lift us all, despite the rhetoric coming from the president. This nation’s brand elevated to a level unseen before in human history, because we were open to so many different types of people. No other country could claim they were “No. 1,” and it will be some time before any other can.
On the other hand, our own state’s brand has suffered so much over the years, as we’ve become the butt of other states’ jokes. Thousands of West Virginians leave the state every year, as they have for decades.
Other places have successfully rebranded themselves after economic downturns, and so can we. Bisbee, Arizona, was a copper mining town until the mines ran dry, and the town reinvented itself as a cool, funky tourism destination. The Vietnamese refugee town of Cabramatta, Australia, reinvented itself in recent years as a food tourism mecca, after suffering from two decades of crime and drug addiction. These are just two small examples of the possibilities of a region’s ability to build upon what has worked and shedding what has not in order to thrive.
I propose that we rebrand ourselves in the same vein that worked for the national brand by marketing West Virginia as a new version of “the land of opportunity,” open to all people.
There are so many refugees, both inside and outside the U.S., that need affordable housing and safety from harm. Our state has hundreds of thousands of empty homes and land plots just waiting to be purchased, as we have lost nearly half of our population in the past few decades.
Paradise, California, lost 90 percent of its homes due to wildfires last fall, which means thousands of displaced people. Huge swathes of the South, from Florida to Texas, have been hit by hurricanes that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and there are plenty of other towns and cities with people in similar situations.
Imagine if we advertised our state as a place of refuge and new beginnings for the professionals, retirees and young people of places like these, where all hope appears lost. And now is a perfect time to do it, as we have recently been proven to have the highest per capita economic growth rate in the country. Let’s build on this momentum by bringing in as many new people and ideas as we can.
What if we even opened our state to people of other countries, like the Syrians, fleeing the Assad government and the Islamic State by the millions? Syria is full of highly educated professionals without homes, who need a sanctuary from years of horrific violence. They are not terrorists. They are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, nurses, firefighters, doctors, lawyers, cooks, teachers, social workers, and many heroic people who have fought for dignity and freedom in the face of unspeakable state terror.
They would be eternally grateful to West Virginia for opening its doors to them, and we would benefit from their cultural, personal and intellectual attributes. Imagine if you will, a possible West Virginia of the future, where we are no longer known as the “heroin capital,” and instead we’re known as an inviting, multicultural state that welcomes people of all backgrounds and creeds. We need a change, so I propose that we change from “Wild and Wonderful” to “Wild and Welcome to All.”