Immigrants add $1.9 billion to local GDP: ‘We are here to contribute’

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Immigrants make up nearly 5% of Montgomery County’s population, work in key industries and contributed nearly $1.9 billion to the local GDP in 2019.

Report sheds light on foreign-born population in Montgomery County and Dayton.

Immigrants make up nearly 5% of Montgomery County’s population, work in key industries and contributed nearly $1.9 billion to the local GDP.

That’s according to a recent report that sheds light on the demographics and economic contributions of the foreign-born population in Montgomery County and Dayton in 2019.

The report demonstrates that immigrants are an asset to the community, said Severa Mwiza, a Rwandan immigrant who co-owns La Viva Rwanda, a fair trade store in Dayton, with Gabriela Pickett, a Mexican immigrant.

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“It shows our competence,” Mwiza said. “We are not here to take advantage of what the country has. We are here to contribute to the development of the growing community. And for example, for us who came here in quest of peace, we are ready to help the people who opened their arms to us.”

The report found that the county’s foreign-born residents come from every continent and many are highly educated. Immigrants make up 6% of the county’s working age population, so they are helping the county meet its work force demands as the U.S. population ages.

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Other key findings from the report include:

  • Immigrants contributed $1.9 billion to Montgomery County’s gross domestic product in 2019, or 6.2% of the total.
  • Over 7% of county business owners were immigrants in 2019. Those 1,100 immigrant entrepreneurs generated $38.9 million in business income.
  • Immigrants in Montgomery County contribute millions to federal, state and local taxes as well as Social Security and Medicare, services some of them cannot access.
  • Without the growth in the immigrant community, the decline of Montgomery County’s and Dayton’s populations would have been greater between 2014 and 2019.

The report was commissioned by the city of Dayton Human Relations Council, and prepared in collaboration with the council by the New American Economy, now part of the American Immigration Council. Funding for the research came from New American Economy..

Researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and other sources. Due to language barriers and other issues getting immigrants to fill out surveys, researchers said this report is likely an undercount of the foreign-born population and their contributions.

Cady Landa, an HRC board member and a social scientist with background in immigration integration who has been involved in this project, said she hopes this report dispels myths about immigrants.

“There’s this perception that they’re taking from us,” Landa said. “The fact is that they’re contributing so much.”

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Immigrants like Mwiza report that the community has become more accepting of them. In a 2021 citywide survey, about 70% of Dayton residents said they would support an immigrant family moving in next door, a 12% increase from 2019.

Combined ShapeCaption
Gabriela Pickett, left and Severa Mwiza co-owns La Viva Rwanda, a fair trade store in Dayton. Pickett is a Mexican immigrant and Mwiza is a Rwandan immigrant. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Gabriela Pickett, left and Severa Mwiza co-owns La Viva Rwanda, a fair trade store in Dayton. Pickett is a Mexican immigrant and Mwiza is a Rwandan immigrant. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Combined ShapeCaption
Gabriela Pickett, left and Severa Mwiza co-owns La Viva Rwanda, a fair trade store in Dayton. Pickett is a Mexican immigrant and Mwiza is a Rwandan immigrant. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

On top of educating U.S.-born residents, Landa and others hope this report convinces community leaders immigrants play a vital role in the county and are worthy of investment.

Dayton already has a history of working on immigrant integration. In 2011, the city launched the Welcome Dayton program aimed at becoming an immigrant-friendly community. Since then, the city has seen strong growth in its immigrant population but lags the rest of the country — immigrants make up 13.6% of the U.S. population.

Landa and other members of the county’s informal steering committee for immigrant integration that formed around this report hope to build on this history. People involved in this welcoming movement, as Landa calls it, said Montgomery County has further to go and could help by, for example, removing barriers to employment, increasing language services and better connecting immigrants with social services.

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How immigrants contribute

“Cities that embrace diversity and inclusion I think are stronger in terms of the economy, culture and arts, government, all of those things,” said Erica Fields, executive director of the Dayton Human Relations Council. ”You have diversity of skill, diversity of talent, diversity of voice. All of those things contribute to the richness and uniqueness and vibrancy of a city.”

Nozipo Glenn, aka Mama Nozipo, is one of those immigrants who has brought her culture and her skills to Dayton. Glenn was expelled from South Africa in the 1970s for opposing the apartheid government. When she came to Dayton in 1975, Glenn had degrees in psychology, sociology and social work.

“Immigrants have something to bring to this country,” she said. “We have skills we can offer in this country.”

Glenn worked at Wright State University helping workers adjust after factories like NCR closed their doors, and many needed assistance on how to build resumes and apply for jobs. Glenn later worked in a Dayton mental health hospital.

She has become enmeshed in the community and co-founded the Dayton Africana Elders Council.

Glenn pointed out the growth in the immigrant population has made up for the city’s decline in U.S.-born population.

“Dayton would be emptier if it wasn’t for us,” she said. “There are all these positive things that we are injecting into the community, into the economy.”

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What would help immigrants

Landa hopes the Dayton community can build on this report, find out more about the immigrant populations the report might have missed and do more qualitative research on what immigrants need to succeed in Montgomery County. She also hopes similar research can be done on Miami and Greene counties.

Martha Jeannette Rodriguez is a Colombian immigrant whose family gained asylum in the U.S. after facing extortion and persecution. Rodriguez works for the city as a community engagement specialist for the Welcome Dayton program, where she helps connect immigrants with resources.

“But some issues, we cannot help,” Rodriguez said. “But maybe Montgomery (County) can if they can make some changes.”

One major issue for immigrants is accessing housing because they have no credit history in the United States, she said. Language barriers also make finding housing, getting a job, and filling out basic forms like enrolling kids in school difficult, Rodriguez said.

Although Welcome Dayton and others have worked on bridging that language barrier, she said more could be done.

Also, many immigrants don’t have government-issued identification like a driver’s license and have difficulty obtaining one. Rodriguez has recently been working with the Hall Hunger Initiative and other local organizations to create the Miami Valley Community ID program. Any Miami Valley resident can get one and use it to do things like get a library card or register their child for school.

One of the biggest needs is for more free and accessible legal services that help immigrants get citizenship, Rodriguez said. While there are some clinics locally, it’s not enough, she said.

Other leaders in the welcoming movement hope they can better connect immigrants to fill the region’s labor needs.

Joann Mawasha, deputy director of the Human Relations Council, said she hopes the county can do better to retain talented immigrants who are already here studying at Wright State University or the University of Dayton.

“There are many international students who want to stay here but they need connected to an employer who will sponsor them,” she said.


Resources and how to get involved

Welcome Dayton can be found at welcomedayton.org and contacted at 937-333-3679.

If you’re interested in participating in strategic planning for immigrant integration in Montgomery County, contact Cady Landa at cadylanda@gmail.com.

Continuing Coverage

In April, the Dayton Daily News will also examine how Afghan refugees are faring since they settled here in recent months and host a Community Conversation on the state of immigration locally.

ExploreDayton’s immigrant population doubles: ‘You can get a better life’

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