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Editorial: What a Biden administration means for Virginia

Editorial: What a Biden administration means for Virginia

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{byline}{&by1}By The Roanoke Times

What will a Biden administration mean for this part of Virginia? Here are at least four ways in which a President Biden could have a unique impact.

1. More international students at local colleges.

The number of new international students in the United States declined for the first time during Barack Obama’s final year in office — but that decline accelerated during the Trump years, not surprising given all the ways in which President Trump has tried to restrict immigration.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says for the current school year the number of international students has dropped 13.7% — nearly double previous declines. That’s likely a combination of both Trump’s immigration policies and the coronavirus pandemic that has left the United States with one of the world’s highest infection rates. We can see these effects at Virginia Tech. It hoped to enroll 475 new international students this year; instead, it wound up with only 201.

Here’s why this matters: International students pay the full price of their education; in-state students don’t. To put things bluntly, international students help subsidize some of the tuition for in-state residents.

A secondary effect: Some international students stay after graduation and eventually become American citizens.

That’s good for the economy, because the modern economy demands a better-educated labor pool. It’s also good demographically, because we have an aging population. If elderly Americans expect to keep getting their Social Security benefits, they’re going to need more young workers paying into the system — here’s one way to increase those numbers.

The Trump administration has been willfully oblivious to fiscal benefits of immigration — especially immigrants with college degrees. Next door, Canada faces the same economic and demographic pressure, and has responded in exactly the opposite way. Both conservative and liberal governments in Ottawa have tried to attract more international students — and make it easier for them to stay after graduation and become citizens.

During the campaign, Biden proposed expanding the number of visas for skilled workers and giving foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs a pathway to citizenship — a modest attempt to replicate what Canada is doing with students with bachelor’s degrees.

2. More refugees in Roanoke.

Since the 1970s, the Star City has been a center for resettling refugees. We can see the cultural effects of that each year in the Local Colors festival, and the economic effect in some of the businesses along Williamson Road, in particular.

Trump dramatically cut the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. each year — to a point where even Canada, a country one-tenth our size, accepted more. Canada has tried to increase the number of refugees it accepts for the same reason it has tried to increase the number of international students — it sees an economic benefit. In that respect, Canada has been the mirror image of the United States.

While attitudes in the U.S. have hardened, at least in some quarters, against refugees, Canada has become more open. Interestingly, that’s especially true in rural Canada, which, much like the rural U.S., tends to be pretty conservative.

However, the study found a correlation between a community’s economic status and its attitude toward immigration — except it’s not what you might expect. That study found the more economically distressed a community is, the more open it is toward immigration.

The Guardian quoted the director of that study as saying: “In Atlantic Canada, they’ve realized that the more immigrants they have, the more businesses that are going to get started there.”

Trump cut the U.S. refugee ceiling form 85,000 per year to 18,000 per year — and there had been some talk that he’d cut it to zero if he won a second term. Biden can be expected to increase that ceiling, which likely will mean more refugees being settled in places such as Roanoke that have a history of doing so. This might be a good time to donate to Blue Ridge Literacy, which has become the main vehicle for teaching English to non-English speakers in the region.

Historical trivia: Until Trump, the refugee ceiling generally has been higher under Republican presidents than Democratic ones. Under George H.W. Bush in 1993, the ceiling was 142,000. Under Ronald Reagan in 1981, it was 217,000, so even Obama’s highest refugee numbers were just 39% of what they were under Reagan.

3. More challenges for the Mountain Valley Pipeline?

The first two points were statements. This is a question. The Trump administration has certainly been pro-fossil fuels. Biden’s views on natural gas are much like some relationship status updates on Facebook: It’s complicated.

He’s vowed to decarbonize the nation’s energy sector by 2035. However, he also endorsed fracking for natural gas — no doubt with an eye on Pennsylvania. Are those two things compatible? The more immediate question is whether a Biden administration would intervene to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

By law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has up to five members, with no more than three from any one party — and currently has a Republican majority. Given the way terms are staggered, it will be July at the earliest before Biden could appoint a Democratic majority — and that assumes his nominees get quickly confirmed by what is likely to be a Republican Senate.

However, if their views on fracking mirror his own, would FERC take any action? Likewise, other federal agencies might take different views once they are under new management — but there’s no guarantee they will.

That’s why we can’t say definitively that a new administration will bring a new set of obstacles for the pipeline. A different Democratic candidate might have moved to shut it down completely but a different Democratic candidate might not have won the election.

4. Local companies in the auto supply chain may see big changes.

From Volvo in Pulaski County to Eldor and Metalsa in Botetourt County, the region has a concentration of companies in the automotive supply chain.

Trump ridiculed electric cars; Biden has pledged support for that technology. The market’s headed there anyway; who knows where it would go with more push from a presidential administration?

It’s hard to know exactly what that would mean for local auto parts makers — Eldor says it’s already preparing for an electric car market — but it will certainly mean something.

The Roanoke Times

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