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Tools for Keeping Virginia’s Immigrants Visible in Adult Education

by Dr. Salta Liebert and Dr. Grant E. Rissler

The growth of Virginia’s immigrant communities also requires adult education providers, including community-based literacy organizations (CBLOs), to stay up-to-date on the numbers, needs, and contributions of immigrants and the role adult education can play in supporting immigrant integration.

The growth of the Foreign Born Community in Virginia 990-2020
Source-Migration Policy Institute and ESRI Living Atlas:
2020 data from ACS 5-year estimate

Immigrants have long been essential threads in Virginia’s fabric, but the importance of this diverse set of communities to the Commonwealth increased greatly in the past 30 years. Virginia’s immigrant population grew from just over 300,000 people and 5% of the population in 1990 to more than 1 million and 12.6% of the population in 2020 (Migration Policy Institute, 2022a). In 2019, immigrants in Virginia represented $33.6 billion in spending power and paid $13.4 billion in taxes, including $4.1 billion in state and local taxes (New American Economy, 2022). Immigrants represent 22.8% of the STEM workforce, 31% of physicians, 14% of nurses and 18.7% of health aides in Virginia (Migration Policy Institute, 2022b). Research shows that 19% of Virginia businesses were owned by immigrants in 2019 and these businesses made up 34% of the “main street” business community (Goren et al., 2021).

Need for Visibility

Many of these contributions are made possible by Virginia’s excellent education system, including its network of adult education providers. The growth of Virginia’s immigrant communities also requires adult education providers, including community-based literacy organizations (CBLOs), to stay up-to-date on the numbers, needs, and contributions of immigrants and the role adult education can play in supporting immigrant integration. However, as immigrant integration scholar Jamie Winders (2012) points out, a key factor in the ability of local governments and non-profit organizations to respond to the needs of immigrants in their community is whether immigrants are “visible” through data, representative networks like governing boards, and through personal interactions with service providers. This visibility often increases when a critical mass of immigrants settles in one geographic area, but smaller or more dispersed immigrant groups can often stay invisible for significant periods because immigrants often encounter cultural, linguistic, legal, and resource barriers to entering many of these “visible” spaces.   

This article endeavors to support adult education providers and CBLOs by:

  • providing a definition of immigrant integration to serve as a common reference point; 
  • reviewing the different dimensions of integration highlighted by research and the inter-relationship among them; and
  • providing a window into several sources of data about immigrants in Virginia that may be useful both for “seeing” immigrants in order to do outreach to specific communities and making the case for English language learning (ELL) programs to funders.

What is immigrant integration?

Integration is defined as “the process by which members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015, p, 2). As such, the concept is distinct from assimilation or acclimation, which have often implied that immigrants adjust, and the host society remains unchanged. Instead, integration implies that both immigrants and the society around them adjust to each other, ideally in a way that improves the well-being of both. Fully integrating immigrants in the United States is important because integrated immigrants can realize their human potential—maximizing their contributions to the workforce, to public revenue through taxes, and to their civic communities.

What are the dimensions of immigrant integration?

Immigrant IntegrationScholarship on immigrant integration highlights several dimensions that shape the different opportunities and barriers an immigrant may encounter in their individual integration journey:

  • The legal framework that determines a person’s immigration status, which in turn affects their eligibility for different benefits;
  • Socioeconomic factors, like working or learning new skills that help get a better job;
  • Sociocultural factors, like learning a new language or political and social views; 
  • Health and getting access to medical care;  
  • Civic and political factors, such as participating in community meetings or volunteering; 
  • Family relationships, including marrying within or outside of a home culture, and
  • Spatial factors, such as access to immigrant specific service providers and whether immigrants settle in “ethnic enclaves.”

It is worth noting that in the integration journey of immigrants, these dimensions overlap, interlock, and interact with each other in significant ways. Immigrants who are spatially isolated from service providers, or who lack legal immigration status, may face greater challenges in accessing services that can help them in gaining language and job skills that would advance their socioeconomic and sociocultural integration.  

What data is available on immigrants in Virginia and my area?

As with many key groups in society, significant data about immigrant communities is available from the U.S. Census Bureau (you can learn a lot about your community by searching for it at https://data.census.gov/cedsci/). However, for those not intimately familiar with the Census Bureau’s organization of data, finding key figures can be difficult. Several organizations provide helpful compilations of U.S. Census Bureau data at the state level:

Utilizing data from the ESRI Living Atlas, an interactive set of maps developed by the authors provides information on the immigrant communities at the locality (county/city) and census tract level and may be of use to adult education and CBLOs: https://bit.ly/seeingimmigrantsinVA

Included in the set of maps are information about the naturalized and non-citizen immigrant populations visualized as a dot density map (see image), areas where large portions of the population are limited English proficient, and data on the number of students in Virginia school systems who report speaking a language other than English at home.

Census Tract for Harriosonburg City

We hope these resources can assist adult education providers, including CBLOs, in understanding the growth of immigrant communities in their areas and informing outreach/marketing efforts to those communities.   


Goren, L., Stewart, C., & Cassidy, M. (2021). Virginia immigrants in the economy. The Commonwealth Institute. https://thecommonwealthinstitute.org/research/virginia-immigrants-in-the-economy/

Migration Policy Institute (MPI). 2022a. Key demographic and labor force trends & sociodemographic and linguistic profile of underemployed immigrant adults with health-related undergraduate degrees: United States and selected states. [Data table]. MPI. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/mpi-demographic-underemployment-trends_us-25states_final.xlsx

Migration Policy Institute (MPI). 2022b. State immigration data profiles: Virginia. [Data set]. MPI. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/data/state-profiles/state/demographics/VA 

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2015). The integration of immigrants into American society. Panel on the Integration of Immigrants into American Society, M.C. Waters and M.G. Pineau, Eds. Committee on Population, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21746

New American Economy. 2022.  Immigrants and the economy in: Virginia. New American Economy. https://www.newamericaneconomy.org/locations/virginia/

Winders, J. (2012). Seeing immigrants: Institutional visibility and immigrant incorporation in new immigrant destinations. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 641(1), 58–78. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002716211432281

Photo of Dr. Salta LiebertDr. Saltanat Liebert is Associate Professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Her research focuses on immigration policy and comparative governance. She is the author of “Irregular Migration from the Former Soviet Union to the United States” (Routledge, 2009) and is the coeditor of “Public Administration in Post-Communist Countries: Former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, and Mongolia” (CRC Press, 2013). Her publications appeared in journals, such as Public Administration Review, Review of Public Personnel Administration, and International Journal of Public  Administration.

Grant RisslerDr. Grant E. Rissler is an affiliate faculty member of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. His broad research focuses on social equity and peacebuilding, with particular focus on state and local government roles in the immigrant integration process and responsiveness to immigrant communities. His research has appeared in State and Local Government Review, the Journal of Public Management and Social Policy, Administrative Theory & Praxis and the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.  


How does adult education fit into the dimensions of immigrant visibility and integration?

VALRC Main logoThe specialists at VALRC and adult education providers across the state envision the role of adult education in the dimensions of immigrant integration as a catalyst for connection between adult immigrant groups and the services along with communities of support they need to thrive. The dimensions highlighted in this article closely align with the essential components of our English language and civics education programs: socioeconomic factors through new skills development, sociocultural factors through language learning, health factors through health literacy programming, and civic factors through civics education and citizenship preparation.

Our adult education programs hold the potential to be a lifeline for new Americans. An important way to strengthen our capacity to positively impact immigrants’ lives in their new communities is to utilize our partner agencies and organizations to enhance our own awareness of who is living in our communities and what their short- and long-term goals and needs are. The resources in this article include several tools to do just that: increase our awareness of immigrant populations who may need services, connect to other immigrant-serving organizations to provide all-around support that align to the dimensions of immigrant integration, and develop integrated supportive services that are goal-oriented and are accessible when and where group of new Americans need them. We at the VALRC are committed to helping all of Virginia’s adult education programs connect with both new learner populations and new partners to increase our visibility and our impact. Contact us at the VALRC for questions and ideas regarding instruction and program design, identifying and building partnerships with other immigrant-serving organizations, and locating data about immigrant groups in your local areas.  

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