CINCINNATI -- Believe it or not, Cincinnati is among the 20 most immigrant-friendly big cities in the U.S.
That’s according to a new index that measures the impact immigrants are having on the nation’s largest cities and how effectively they are integrating.
Released this morning by New York-based New American Economy, the NAE Cities Index scores cities based on measures such as support for immigrant entrepreneurs, socioeconomic outcomes for foreign-born residents and homeownership rates.
The overall scores ranged from one to five. Cincinnati scored 3.48 and ranked 18th out of 100.
“It puts us above quite a few cities, quite a few or our competitors,” said Steve Driehaus, the executive director of Cincinnati Compass, an initiative of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the city of Cincinnati and other community partners who are working to make the region more welcoming for immigrants.
“We’ve got a ways to go to be number one, which is what we’re shooting for,” Driehaus said.
This index is different from past studies because it looks at both policy and socioeconomic factors, said Andrew Lim, New American Economy’s director of quantitative research.
Cincinnati scored well, in part, because of the efforts of Mayor John Cranley and the business and educational leaders that formed Cincinnati Compass, said Dan Wallace, New America Economy’s director of special projects.
“We’re really impressed with their leadership on this issue,” Wallace said.
That political leadership, along with strong scores on the economic prosperity measures, helped Cincinnati rank where it did, he said.
“I think in some ways a lot of people around the country would be surprised to see a city like Cincinnati come out so strongly on this issue,” Wallace said. “We weren’t as surprised.”
There were measures, however, where Cincinnati didn’t fare as well.
Three jobs and a dream
High-skilled U.S.-born residents had a median individual income of $44,556, according to the index, whereas high-skilled foreign-born residents had a median individual income of only $30,000.
“It’s underemployment,” Driehaus said. “You have people coming from overseas who might be very well qualified. But because they don’t have the right degree or certificate, they end up driving a taxi. You might have a doctor doing home health care.”
The poverty rate showed an even bigger disparity.
While 8.1 percent of high-skilled U.S.-born Cincinnati residents live in poverty, a whopping 20.4 percent of high-skilled foreign-born Cincinnati residents are poor, according to the index.
“They often come here with nothing,” Driehaus said of the immigrants who wind up in Cincinnati. “People are willing to sacrifice everything to come to the U.S. for opportunity.”
But Driehaus said people shouldn’t interpret those poverty rates to mean that immigrants are coming to the United States to take advantage of poverty programs and benefits.
“Check in five years what that person is doing, and you’re going to see that they’re gainfully employed, they’re working hard, they’re earning a living and they’re sending money back home,” he said.
That was Ben Koussoube’s trajectory.
He moved to New York City in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in business management, $2,000 in his pocket and a dream to build a better life than the one he had back home in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.
Opportunity didn’t come as easily as Koussoube had hoped, though. He stayed with a friend and worked three jobs: selling newspapers in the morning, delivering pizzas in the afternoon and washing dishes at night.
After a year and a half, he had saved up enough to move his family to the United States, too, but he didn’t want his wife and daughter to have to live in the kind of place he could afford in New York. So he moved to Cincinnati.
From washing dishes to winning scholarships
“One of my friends was already living in Cincinnati,” Koussoube said. “He told me some good things about the cost of living and that the people were friendly.”
Koussoube moved to Cincinnati in January of 2013 and found a job working in a warehouse before he moved his family here.
He began attending classes at Cincinnati State in May 2013 and earned his associate’s degree with a 3.66 GPA by the end of 2014.
He won a scholarship to attend the University of Cincinnati and earned his bachelor’s degree in business in 2016. He now works as an accountant for a major accounting firm Downtown.
“I remember crying when I first started my work as a dishwasher. I even asked myself what wrong did I do to God for him to send me here,” Koussoube said. “The beginning was pretty hard. But now, thinking back, I feel like I made a good decision. Today I’m able to inspire a lot of people and even a lot of immigrants.”
Koussoube and his wife live in an apartment on Cincinnati’s West Side with their daughter, who is now 10, and their son, who just turned 3.
“I expect my children to do better than me, and I don’t want to make their job easier,” he said, adding that he plans to go back to college to get his master’s degree and maybe even a Ph.D.
That kind of commitment to hard work and success is one of the ways immigrants make cities stronger, Driehaus said.
“The immigrant population here is contributing tremendously to our workforce and economic growth,” Driehaus said. “Cincinnati has turned a corner, and I think one of the big reasons is because we are doing a much better job of welcoming immigrants. And the more we can do that, the more we will grow.”
The picture isn’t as rosy for all local immigrants, however.
‘There’s tremendous fear’
“With the new administration and the rhetoric, we’re also seeing more people targeting immigrants,” said Giovanna Alvarez, the director of Su Casa Hispanic Center, a program of Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio that serves Hispanic and Latino immigrants who are working to build better lives in the region.
“Some of the people are speaking about bullying of people of international origins,” said Alvarez, who also is a Cincinnati Compass board member. “At the same time, there’s a wave of people saying we want to be inclusive.”
Su Casa helps immigrants with emergency assistance and educational services such as English classes and GED programs.
The organization also has seen a growing need to help families prepare for possible detentions, Alvarez said. To do that, Su Casa meets with families and helps them think through legal paperwork they would need if they are detained and their children are left alone.
“There’s tremendous fear,” Driehaus said. “You have kids going to school in the morning not knowing if they’re going to see their parents when they get home.”
That fear can make it more difficult for immigrants to feel welcome.
But there are things that U.S.-born residents can do to help, he said.
“It’s simple things,” he said. “Say hello to someone that has an accent you don’t quite understand.”
For his part, Koussoube said Cincinnati feels more welcoming now than it did when he moved here six years ago.
“The city is kind of working on that,” he said.
With a bit more work, maybe next year’s ranking will be even better.
More information about the NAE Cities Index is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.