Jenny Williams, an English professor at Hazard Community and Technical College, knows that immigration has been crucial to rural Perry County. Her father was a doctor in the 1970s, when the region lacked qualified medical professionals. Then Appalachian Regional Healthcare began recruiting foreign-born doctors, primarily from India, to practice at local hospitals. Today, 52 percent of all Perry County physicians are foreign-born, according to the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky. They provide vital services to a population that has significantly higher rates of mortality, obesity, smoking, and teen pregnancy than elsewhere in the state.
And according to Williams, foreign-born doctors also provide unexpected benefits to Eastern Kentucky. “In addition to providing valuable and much-needed healthcare, they enrich our communities and culture and create a more diverse, vibrant Appalachia,” she says. As a child, for example, she remembers seeing the world open up with the new food and culture. “Our community’s cultural health is an important part of our overall wellbeing. Foreign-born doctors see to both,” she says.
Immigration reform is important to the future of regions such as Appalachia, which desperately need an infusion of people to bring business and tax revenues.
Immigrants are also providing important tax revenue to the area. In the last decade, the coal industry in Perry County has collapsed, causing many younger people to leave in search of work. The population loss has led to a drop in tax revenue, further devastating the region. “We need people who want to live here and settle here,” says Williams. She adds that many people may not realize that several of the long-established families in Perry County actually trace their ancestry to India and the Middle East.
New American Economy research shows that Perry County’s congressional district has one of the lowest rates of immigration in the nation. Only 0.9 percent of the population is foreign-born. However, these immigrants, who are primarily from India and Mexico, have a median income of $44,000, 42 percent higher than the median income for the county of $31,000.
“Immigration reform is important to the future of regions such as Appalachia, which desperately need an infusion of people to bring business and tax revenues,” says Williams. She says that the United States in general and Central Appalachia in particular need to be more welcoming to both refugees and immigrants. “Immigrants are not a threat to our region,” she says. “Many immigration rules claim to be based on the idea of security, but they do nothing to make me feel safer. We should not only be welcoming, but inviting, to immigrants, who have much to offer our communities.”