DAYTON, Ohio - In East Dayton, Ohio, a growing Hispanic community is slowly remaking a neighborhood plagued by empty, boarded-up homes and businesses.
On Dayton’s north side, an abandoned neighborhood center has been renovated into a community gathering place for the more than 500 Turkish families – many refugees from Russia – who now call the area home.
And across Dayton, libraries carry books in 13 languages, teachers in public schools have welcomed immigrant children from 32 countries who speak 25 languages and more than 2,200 immigrants have become naturalized U.S. citizens since 2011.
Dayton, a city shambled by America’s manufacturing malaise, has embraced immigration as community leaders work to stem population loss and rebuild the city’s economy.
Backed by business leaders, churches, political will and new policies, the city adopted an official Welcome Dayton plan in 2011 to encourage encourage immigrants to make Dayton their home. The lessons learned so far there will likely help guide a local task force that's working to see Cincinnati join the growing number of Midwest cities eager to attract more immigrants in the race to rebound from the recession and boost business.
"We’re not a large city like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, and yet we’re on the leading edge of exploring how to grow our population, diversify and become attractive in way that’s inclusive to all,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley went public with his plan to attract immigrants last week. “We want to attract capital, innovation, productivity, excitement,” he said last week as he introduced the task force. “That makes us all better.”
In recent weeks, the public welcoming of immigrants by communities has gained new attention nationwide as the federal government seeks shelter for more than 57,000 Central American children who have been detained by U.S. Border Patrol since October.
“I think that what were seeing is cities and town taking stances on this issue that reflect the polarization of our country,” said Jamie Longazel, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. “Part of it too is that, this is what happens when we don’t see comprehensive reform on the national level. Politicians begin to act on the local level, where it’s seen as a safer issue.”
But longer term, attracting more immigrants means striking a balance between meeting the sometimes extreme social needs of newcomers and investing in their talent and entrepreneurial spirit, says Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan.
“We’re not a sanctuary program but we do think this is the right thing to do,” Riordan said. “Not only to help immigrants integrate, but because it can help grow and build our community with direct foreign investment.”
Local law, not federal
Inspiration for Welcome Dayton began around 2009 as neighborhoods across the city faced a range of immigrant-related issues, says Migwe Kimemia, a Kenyan immigrant director of Dayton’s American Friends Service Committee.
“It was a community-driven effort, not the city leaders doing this from the top down,” said Kimemia. “We brought together a broad section of the community from various sectors, created a task force and met for more than eight months to open the dialogue and talk about the issues.”
Among the top concerns was how to address the issue of undocumented immigrants. But as communities in Arizona, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and even Ohio put into place strict policies, Dayton pursued a different route.
“We were hearing stories of Hispanics being deported – a father would go out for milk for his children and never come back,” Whaley said. “It was breaking apart families and it was a burden on our systems here.”
Eventually the city adopted a formal policy of enforcing its local laws – not federal immigration violations.
“Of course if people are breaking the law, we’re dealing with that, but we’re not out there looking for illegal immigrants,” said Whaley. “It’s not our job to enforce federal law.”
And as more immigrants, documented and undocumented feel welcomed, Whaley says they’ve begun to work with law enforcement.
“If immigrants don’t feel safe, they won’t become part of the community and take advantage of opportunities and invest,” she said. “We want them to call if they’re a victim of a crime, or a domestic violence issue and not feel like they have to hide their money in their mattresses.”
Education and entrepreneurship
As Welcome Dayton has been put into action, other efforts have focused on ways to attract and empower legal immigrants to renovate and buy new homes, learn English, extend their education and start businesses.
Wright State and the University of Dayton are both on board too – with each developing programs aimed at attracting immigrants.
“Part of my job here is to attract immigrants from across the country to bring businesses here to Dayton,” said Tony Ortiz, associate vice president for Latino affairs at Wright State. “I'm preaching Dayton, Ohio to these immigrant leaders because it's
an affordable good to place live and raise a family."
UD now has more than 800 Chinese students enrolled, and Wright State is welcoming a pipeline of Hispanic immigrant students through programs including El Puente. The East Datyon-based non-profit founded by Ortiz supports immigrant students and their families with after-school, English and reading comprehension programs.
Among El Puente’s success stories is 18-year Yarenci Herrera, who came to Dayton at age 7 with her family from Mexico. In 2013, she graduated salutatorian of Dayton's David H. Ponitz Career Technology Center. Now, she’s a sophomore at Wright State, studying to be an accountant and working as instructor at El Puente teaching English to incoming children and families.
"My parents brought us here because they wanted to give us opportunities that they didn't have, and we wouldn't have if we still lived in Mexico," said Herrera.
Through a minority business accelerator, immigrants looking to start small businesses can get help crafting their business plan and help with getting a small business loan.
On arrival, barriers to landing existing jobs are higher, leading those with money or talent to strike out on their own.
“Nationally stats tell us that immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than an American-born resident, and our experience is that number is much higher,” said Riordan. “We know, for example, that we have a couple hundred immigrants who’ve gone out and bought over-the-road trucks and they’re doing long hauls across the country. A couple of them are putting together trucking companies here.”
At the American Friends Service Committee, Kimemia is leading an effort to launch a coffee roasting program that teaches incoming African refugees about the American marketplace.
“We’re working on a proposal and funding right now, but we have support from the state and we’re hoping to launch next spring,” said Kimemia
Going forward, Riordan said officials are eager to craft more formal programs to help immigrant entrepreneurs in targeted growth sectors and create better pipelines for attracting foreign investment.
Among those opportunities is establishing a regional center to attract immigrants through the federal government EB-5 visa program, which was created in the 1990s to attract foreign wealth.
“That’s just part of what we’re doing, and we want to keep expanding opportunities,” said Riordan.
One success story
While Welcome Dayton is achieving continued incremental successes, for now officials say it’s still much too soon to know if the strategy is working.
Also, no comprehensive data exists that can help the city measure the impact – economic and otherwise – of immigration. Work is under way on that effort now at Wright State, said Ortiz.
“We know there is an impact and there is a need to begin measuring that now," he said. “We’re creating an immigration research institute here to collect data and analyze it because we know there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I’m certain that we can prove that these folks who are started businesses and moving here are having a positive impact.”
For now, Ortiz relies on anecdotal success stories like that of Ana Maria Riveria as he travels the country selling Dayton immigrant-led businesses and leaders in other states.
Earlier this year, Riveria, a Colombian immigrant, opened La Columbiana in Beavercreek – investing thousands of dollars borrowed from her family and friends to get the restaurant off the ground.
“I never imagined I would own my business,” said Riveria. “It’s a lot of hard work for a little profit, but we’ve had a lot of support. I’ve never once felt discriminated against here, not even when I couldn’t speak English. I’ve always felt welcome.”
Dayton’s leaders say they hope to team with Cincinnati on a broader, effort that will transform the two communities into one regional immigration magnet.
“We took the step early, and while we have a lot of lessons to share we still have a lot of things to learn,” said Riordan. “Frankly, I see more and more ways that Cincinnati and Dayton can work together, because clearly we’re growing into one region.”
But whether they can sustain their momentum in the absence of national immigration reform is a concern.
“It’s one thing we’re trying to get Boehner’s office to move on,” said Robert Solinas, president of Dayton’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a manufacturing facility in Miamisburg.
“This is still very national issue,” said Whaley, who recently became the focus of criticism from U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and a half dozen other Dayton leaders for offering the city as a safe haven for immigrant children.
In Cincinnati, Cranley has expressed support for Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio’s pursuit to welcome some of the children here.
Turner and others have argued that Whaley doesn’t have the authority or resources to offer shelters. Meanwhile, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, on Thursday proposed a measure that would require
the Obama administration to consult with the governor of any state before transporting the immigrant children. The measure also calls for the secretary of health and human services to certify that the incoming minors “will not have a burdensome economic impact or negative public health impact on the state or affected communities,” according to release from McConnell’s office.
“My amendment makes clear that these minors should be treated humanely and returned to their home country immediately, not shipped across the nation and housed at taxpayer expense,” McConnell said.
Whaley said the city was approached by the federal government as it sought a solution for housing more than 57,000 unaccompanied children that have been detained since October, the vast majority from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The federal government would pay for operating and staffing any facilities that are selected, said Whaley.
“I think it’s sad that it’s gotten so politicized,” said Whaley. “This is a humanitarian crisis, and as Americans we have a duty to support this effort when asked.”