West Virginia’s first immigration commissioner was authorized by the legislature in 1864. Joseph H. Diss Debar, himself an immigrant, was appointed to the position and charged with attracting other newcomers to the young state. After Diss Debar, apparently at least two other immigration commissioners served during the 19th century, and the job may have remained vacant at times for lack of funds or lack of interest.
Diss Debar and his early successors were especially interested in attracting farmers, and helped to settle immigrant agricultural communities at St. Clara and Helvetia. Official interest in the position revived at about the turn of the 20th century due to the need for labor for West Virginia’s burgeoning industries, especially coal mining. The legislature reactivated the position in 1897. Funding was not provided, however, and no one was appointed until 1907 when John Nugent became the state’s immigration commissioner.
John Nugent was a controversial figure who had been president of United Mine Workers of America District 17 and of the West Virginia Federation of Labor. No public funds were available for the immigration commissioner, and Nugent’s salary and expenses were underwritten by coal companies from 1907 to 1913. Nugent visited England, Scotland, and Wales in 1907 to recruit miners. His activities became an issue in the 1913 U.S. Senate investigation of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek mine strike. Nugent was alleged to have recruited immigrants to work in the Paint Creek mines even though he was aware that there was a strike in progress.
Following World War I, federal laws greatly restricted the influx of immigrants to the United States. The West Virginia immigration commissioner’s position was left vacant for several years and dropped from the state’s laws by 1931.
Written by Kenneth R. Bailey
Harris, Evelyn K. & Frank J. Krebs. From Humble Beginnings: The West Virginia State Federation of Labor, 1903-1957. Charleston: West Virginia Labor History Pub. Fund, 1960.
Bailey, Kenneth R. "West Virginia and the Alien Contract Labor Law," in , New River Symposium Proceedings. : 1993.