DAYTON — A potentially divisive City Commission meeting turned into a love-fest Wednesday, as Dayton’s plan to become an “immigrant-friendly city” was lauded by nearly every speaker and approved by a 4-0 Commission vote.
“Immigrants cross many lands and seas carrying on their shoulders the hopes and dreams of so many others left behind,” said Festus Nyiwo, an immigrant from Nigeria. “This great city of Dayton is called upon at this moment to act with a sense of diversity, prosperity and posterity.”
By its vote, City Commission accepted the Welcome Dayton plan “as a framework for action.”
Human Relations Council Director Tom Wahlrab said the city hopes to establish a funding recommendation and a volunteer committee to help implement the plan by the end of the year. He encouraged anyone hoping to serve on the committee to call the HRC at 333-1403. City Commissioner Matt Joseph said the city will probably pay for just one employee to coordinate the program.
The plan caused some debate about whether Dayton should embrace immigrants who are here in violation of federal laws, with some residents claiming threats to the job market and social services. Others said the plan could help a shrinking city thrive again.
Three University of Dayton sociology professors spoke in favor of the plan. Jamie Longazel cited a study he did in 2005 on an immigration crackdown in Hazleton, Pa., saying the immigrants were just a convenient scapegoat.
He said Hazleton had the same vacant storefronts, decaying historic buildings and lack of manufacturing jobs that Dayton has, but the law drove away some Latino migrants who were boosting the economy.
“One reason the American Dream is still alive is that people keep coming to us who believe in it,” said UD professor Linda Majka. “Dayton has the opportunity to get this right.”
Terry Magyar, representing the Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, cautioned city officials, saying local police “shouldn’t be making immigration decisions.” Magyar said the city should not enact a municipal ID card program unless it will fingerprint participants to ensure their identity.
Mayor Gary Leitzell read a statement addressing the illegal immigrant debate.
“This is not about harboring illegal immigrants or drawing illegal immigrants into Dayton,” Leitzell said. “We understand there are problems with people entering the U.S. illegally. The Welcome Dayton plan leaves federal immigration law enforcement to the feds, and instead focuses on making our community one that treats all people kindly, fairly and humanely. If you are an illegal immigrant, you will be subjected to the same federal laws as anyone else.”
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said studies on crime and recidivism rates show similar or decreased rates of crime from illegal immigrants.
“Some research says immigrant communities have lower crime rates because they’re frightened of having any police contact,” Biehl said. “There’s no link that I can see from anywhere that links illegal immigration with increasing crime trends.”
Dayton resident David Dewberry said city officials should be aware that some black residents feel the same “welcome mat hasn’t been extended to them,” but he supported the plan, saying many people are simply afraid of change.
Joseph said opposition to Welcome Dayton has come largely from outsiders, with city residents united in support. He talked about seeing the American Dream in his immigrant grandfather, and said Dayton hasn’t had the large “waves of immigration that usually refresh American cities,” pointing to a surge of Appalachians who came for auto jobs 60 years ago as the last group.
“There’s a practical side to this — that it’s good for the city, and there’s an idealistic side, that we’re America,” Joseph said. “In order to build a new and better Dayton ... it behooves us to listen to the principles that drove this country.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2278 or jkelley@Dayton DailyNews.com.