Different approaches taken to illegal immigration in region

Immigration law is a federal issue, but Southwest Ohio communities take a variety of stances on the topic, affecting where local immigrants live and work, and how they conduct their lives.

City of Dayton officials have opened their arms to immigrants via the Welcome Dayton plan. Police do not investigate suspects’ immigration status except in the case of “the most serious offenders” as described by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And Mayor Gary Leitzell joined the mayors of Trotwood and Riverside on a visit to Turkey last year, aiming to strengthen ties with a nation that has provided an influx of immigrants.

But 25 miles southwest, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones is a longtime proponent of tougher immigration laws. His sheriff’s office is one of just a handful of local-level police agencies nationwide that has ICE powers, and uses them regularly. He says the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally are taking jobs from Americans and using up social service programs.

“There is a wide range of immigrants scattered all over a five-county area in the Dayton footprint,” said local Latino leader Tony Ortiz, who works with a state commission on Hispanics’ issues. “They are paying taxes, they’re working, they’re contributing to the development of this area. Dayton, unlike some areas like Hamilton, is different. They’re welcome here. They’re scared to come out in their neighborhoods in the Hamilton area.”

Immigrants, police and government officials will be watching the progress of a new bipartisan immigration proposal put forth this week by eight U.S. senators. The proposal includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, streamlined procedures for hi-tech workers and agricultural workers to get green cards, and a verification system to make sure businesses don’t hire illegal immigrants who don’t participate in any of those pathways.

“The main thing that people would want is a legal way to be here and do menial jobs that other people don’t do, and to do that legally, instead of kind of disappearing (because of their legal status),” said Sister Maria Stacy, of the Hispanic Catholic Ministry in Dayton.

Stacy said the Dayton area has real examples of how the current U.S. immigration system works inefficiently for both illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens.

“There are people who call me and say, ‘We’re looking for people to work on our farm,’ ” Stacy said, echoing Ortiz’s claim that it’s hard to find Americans to do that work. “I think this proposal would help the U.S. citizens (farmers) who are looking for people to work.”

Jones, who said the Senate proposal is generally a step in the right direction, said he’s getting fewer calls about illegal workers because the economic downturn has left fewer jobs. But he pushed for penalties for those employers who do hire illegal immigrants.

Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan pointed to gradual progress in his city, as many institutions adapt to serving diverse populations. He said the Dayton Metro Library has acquired more books in other languages, local hospitals have made more interpreters available, and the city itself has brought immigrants in to talk to new police officers, so they are better prepared to deal with different cultures.

“The argument that we should be locking up everyone is not borne out in real life,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said. “Overpolicing causes friction rather than improving police-community relations.”

Ortiz and Stacy said perhaps the biggest focus of immigration reform should be on the next generation — kids who are already here illegally, brought here by parents.

“The youth identify more with the U.S. than any home country,” Stacy said. “You say to the kids, where are you from in Mexico? They might know the name of the place, but they say I’m not quite sure where it is. … I think it is just good for our country (to give them a path to citizenship).”

Lauren Pack contributed to this story.