Immigration is a controversial issue throughout the country, but communities like Dayton stand to gain from an influx of foreign-born residents, U.S. Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher P. Lu said at a roundtable event here Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate in recent years that it hasn’t been the core value in certain parts of this country. But, heck, that works to the benefit of Dayton as you all have shown,” said Lu, himself son of Chinese immigrants. “This is a huge economic benefit to the city.”
Foreign-born households in the city held more than $115 million in spending power and paid more than $15 million in state and local taxes, according to research conducted this month by the Partnership for a New American Economy in conjunction with Welcome Dayton, the city program that works to attract and retain immigrants.
Melissa Bertolo, Welcome Dayton program coordinator, told about 20 people at the meeting at Tech Town that the city receives a large proportion of highly skilled immigrants but sometimes those skills can’t be put to work, at least not initially and not without difficulty.
“More are coming with foreign credentials,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity, skills and talent they bring with them, but there are certainly a lot of barriers as well for them to be integrated and be able to use their work experience here in the United States.”
One of the roundtable participants, Amira Yousif, was a professor of computer science in Jordan before leaving that country more than five years ago and landing in the United States.
Dayton wasn’t on the itinerary, but now that she’s here Yousif loves it.
“We are lucky,” she said of her family. “I cannot say how much I love Dayton.”
Yousif, her husband and four children were originally scheduled to go to Phoenix, where immigration is a flash point for a national and sometimes angry debate. But the United Nations switched the destination to Dayton and Yousif and her husband are now working for the University of Dayton.
The timing was fortuitous. At the time the groundwork was laid to make Dayton a more immigrant friendly community. The Welcome Dayton plan became official in 2011.
Yousif’s job is much different than what she was doing back home. She earned a degree in accounting at UD and has been promoted several times. She is now a production manager in dining services.
Immigrants who come to the U.S. to live often have credentials from home that don’t match what is required by employers here. Wright State University is working with Welcome Dayton to develop a “career discernment” program to help immigrants through professional credentialing and licensing and find ways fill any gaps, said Kimberly Barrett, vice president of multicultural affairs and community engagement.
Those moving to Dayton from foreign lands are more likely to have college degrees than those born here. According to the Welcome Dayton study, 17 percent of foreign-born residents hold a bachelor’s degree while 5.4 percent come to America with advanced degrees. Just 10 percent of native-born Dayton residents have a bachelor’s degree; 3.7 percent have an advanced degree.
“We understand that in a global competition, which the United States is in, we need to field the full team,” Lu said. “We don’t leave anyone on the sidelines. The quicker we can integrate them into the fabric of our community, the quicker they can become contributors to our economy.”
The foreign-born workforce in Dayton increased by 23.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the study. The increase in workers translates into more residents living in Dayton. The city’s foreign-born population increased 58.8 percent between 2009 and 2013. More than 6,500 people living in Dayton in 2013 were born outside of America’s borders. Though the native-born population fell 8.6 percent, the net result was a small population increase, reversing a downward trend.
One key to retaining legal immigrants and improving their economic pull in the community is to put them on a path to citizenship, Lu said.
“If you make the decision to become naturalized your earnings are higher; you’re more likely to buy a home; you’re more likely to start a business; you really create the roots,” he said.
The local report estimates Dayton has 1,382 foreign-born residents who are eligible for naturalization but haven’t taken that step. Naturalized citizens earn as much as 16 percent more than non-citizens, according to a 2012 University of Southern California study.
Michael Colbert, assistant director of Montgomery County Jobs and Family Services, said the Job Center will be looking to align capable workers with about 3,600 jobs over the next two years. The center will assist immigrants with resumes, provide interpreters during job interviews, and offer other assistance.
“One of the things that’s making Dayton attractive right now is the fact that our economy is really booming, especially in distribution,” he said. “We are becoming the hub.”
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