A Tradition of Immigration in Virginia

“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”

– President George Washington

The hope voiced by our first President, George Washington, was the dream of many of our own ancestors, not all of whom came to America on the Mayflower. They came bearing different traditions, different memories, and a dream for a better life for themselves and their children. From the colonists who founded Jamestown in 1607, Virginia has welcomed generations of new Americans to its shores and today it is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation.

Home to more than one million immigrants, Virginia ranks as having the 9th largest foreign-born population in the United States. Between 1990 and 2010, political unrest, civil wars, and foreign occupation of their homelands drove a wave of immigrants to Northern Virginia, increasing the population of the area’s foreign-born residents from 177,000 to over 463,000. The result has been an explosion of cultural heterogeneity that has changed the demographic of the region, creating a global community abundant in disparate languages and traditions.

Blessed with such diversity, today Northern Virginia reflects the vibrancy of the customs, heritage and folklore that have accompanied the immigrants to their new home. Every culture proudly identifies itself with the food of its people, and they love to share! Local communities and neighborhood shopping centers brim with ethnic markets filled with exotic-looking fruits and spices that spark curiosity and stir creativity. Restaurants bring the flavors and culture of the area’s foreign-born to mingle with the more established local palette. We often see Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and American restaurants on the same street, inviting people with different cultural backgrounds to explore the colors, scents and flavors of international cuisines. New languages are learned and taught—and friendships made—over plates and cups of multicultural comfort food. And in that place, acceptance and interest in the lives of neighbors takes hold.

“Everywhere, immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
– President John F. Kennedy

An impressive 70 percent of Virginia’s adult immigrants are working or looking for work. Many operate their own businesses, and according to The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis’ latest statistics, make up 34 percent of all Virginia main street business owners. Many work in white-collar jobs, while others bring their skills to the service, construction and maintenance industries. Regardless of job title or position, working immigrants in Northern Virginia contribute millions of dollars to their communities’ tax base to support schools and local infrastructure, while helping the state out-perform the country in labor force participation, education and household income.

Generated by the shift in the area’s demographics, demand for English skills in a workforce where English is the predominant language has grown exponentially with the undeniable corollary between English language proficiency and immigrant progress. As one of the area’s leading advocates for immigrant education, BEACON helps to satisfy this demand every semester by offering ESOL classes for all levels, from beginner to advanced. BEACON also integrates workforce development, civics education, computer literacy and citizenship preparation into the education program.

Personal stories of how immigrants came to the U.S. are filled with emotion, peril and hope. Diana Paguaga, Vice-Chair of BEACON’s Board of Directors, is herself an immigrant who passionately fights for the rights of all foreign-born who come to this country, especially those fleeing violence and unimaginable poverty. “Coming to America, it is not easy,” she says. “Often the immigrant is forced to live in the shadows, always afraid that you will be deported back to the same violence you left behind.” But, thanks to programs like BEACON and other initiatives aiding immigrants, those who have found themselves in America have the opportunity to learn English, find a job, and greatly improve their lives and the lives of their families, both in the U.S. and those left behind in their mother country.

Creators of the BEACON ministry, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia enjoy a long history of helping the nation’s poor and foreign-born, and remember their own humble beginnings as immigrants. Between 1830 and 1860, over one million German-Catholic immigrants settled along the rural frontier lands of North America. In 1846, German monk Boniface Wimmer and 18 men committed to the Benedictine way of life left the Abbey of Metten in Bavaria for America. After a turbulent Atlantic crossing on the steamship SS Iowa, Father Wimmer accepted a position from the Bishop of Pittsburgh to found St. Vincent’s, the first Benedictine Monastery in the United States. Located on a small bit of land in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh, the monastery was established. It comprised a schoolhouse, log cabin, brick church, and barn.

In response to the growing need for help in teaching and caring for the immigrants, Abbott Wimmer appealed to Mother Edwarda of the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstatt, Germany to consider sending a few sisters to America to teach immigrant children. Soon after, in 1852, three young Benedictine women arrived in the isolated town of St. Marys, PA. Undaunted in the face of tremendous challenges, these sisters founded a parish school in their two-room convent to teach the German immigrant children. Their community grew, and in 1868, the Benedictine Sisters moved to Richmond, Virginia where they began a new foundation with the mission of educating young students—again, most of whom were immigrant children. In 1894, led by Mother Edith Vogel, several sisters left Richmond for Bristow and established the Saint Benedict Monastery. For over a century, the sisters have provided quality education and counseling services through their various ministries to the local community. In 1992, BEACON was founded to address the need for adult literacy education within Prince William County for the area’s escalating immigrant population.

As more people choose to build new lives in America, they reap the benefits of the toil and perseverance of those who came before them. Through hard work, and a support system of compassionate, encouraging advocates—like Diana Paguaga, BEACON and the Benedictine Sisters—immigrants from all nations can realize the potential and rewards of building a better future for their own children, and generations to come.