Southwest Ohio’s two biggest cities now have this shared message: immigrants are welcome here.
Saying a more immigrant friendly community is good economic policy, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley launched a new task force Thursday on the issue. The goal is to make Cincinnati the most immigrant friendly city in the country.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because the issue was spearheaded 54 miles north in Dayton in 2011, and has since gained the Rust Belt community national attention as federal lawmakers debate immigration reform.
Attracting more foreign-born people to live, work and invest here makes the region more competitive. And it draws new sources of capital, innovation, productivity and excitement, Cranley said.
“That makes us all better,” Cranley said.
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“I just think it shows cities are on the forefront of long-term economic growth in the country,” Cranley said. “Cities are back. Cities are popular again and immigration’s been the lifeblood of New York and all the big cities for the entire history of the country.”
A group of about 80 volunteers have been assembled for the new task force, including top local leaders such as University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono, Mercy Health President Dr. Yousuf Ahmad and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College President Dr. O’dell Owens. Five committees have formed, meeting Thursday for the first time at Cincinnati’s Music Hall: economic development; community resources, welcoming and community development; education and talent retention; international attraction; and rights and safety.
Top on the list of priorities for the group are to review what other cities are doing, determine best practices, and make a series of actionable recommendations, Cranley said.
For example, volunteers will look for ways to make it easier for someone from China to shop for a home in Cincinnati in a language they can understand. They’ll examine how well all citizens are treated and that non-English speaking crime victims are treated with respect, among other barriers, the Democratic mayor said.
“Why are we doing this? Is it good business?” said Thomas Fernandez, co-chair of Cincinnati’s new task force.
“It sure is, but that’s not our motivation. Our principle motivation is it is our obligation; our obligation to pay it forward, create the same opportunities others have created for us,” Fernandez said.
Better coordination of translation and other services, and promoting the region as an international destination can boost population and economic growth, Fernandez said.
“If we make it easy and inviting as much as possible, I think we’ll be able to compete against larger cities that already have programs in place,” he added.
Cincinnati’s neighbor to the north officially branded its immigration-friendly effort “Welcome Dayton” in 2011, said Matt Joseph, Dayton city commissioner and chair of the effort.
But for a decade or more, leaders of Dayton have sought to make the city more friendly to immigrants and newcomers.
“Frankly, it’s probably going to be part of every city’s strategy to remake itself in the near future, so that’s not a surprise,” Joseph said of Cincinnati’s new task force.
Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan told the “Daily Show with John Stewart,” which profiled in 2013 Welcome Dayton, that the city’s influx of immigrants has been a good thing.
“Do you know how much money we get in tax monies from immigrants? They create jobs, they create businesses,” Riordan said on the show.
These moves by local governments may not impact immigration reform directly, said Shelly Bromberg, Miami University Hamilton professor of Spanish and Portuguese.
But Cincinnati’s actions are “another city that’s saying we want to see a positive resolution on all sides and we want a positive reaction versus a negative one. Maybe this is a strategy that will produce a more productive conversation,” Bromberg said.
Distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said, “I encourage people to come to the greatest country in the world legally and not make a mockery of our system.”
But illegal immigration strains taxpayer dollars, Jones said.
“I encourage people who are here illegally… if these two cities want to take you and give you free stuff, go to their cities.”
“Go to Dayton, go to Cincinnati and get free housing. If they want you there, go there,” Jones said. “Get on their welfare dime, I’m good with that.”
From a year-long debate on broader immigration reform, an immediate humanitarian crisis has emerged at the country’s southern border.
More than 57,000 minors, many unaccompanied, have arrived since October mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
At issue is a 2008 law designed to protect children from trafficking by gangs and other criminals. Minors from other countries are allowed to make their case directly to an immigration judge; that process can take years amid a backlog of cases. In the meantime, those children remain in the U.S. with family members or with sponsors while they await hearings in the clogged system.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats advanced competing proposals Wednesday for dealing with the influx of tens of thousands of young migrants. Each side quickly ruled the other’s approach unacceptable, leaving any solution unclear with Congress’ annual August recess looming.
Comments by Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley recently stirred controversy when she said Dayton was willing to be a destination if Congress approves funding to shelter the children.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said Whaley’s comments were “completely out of line.”
“When we talk about being an ‘immigrant welcoming city,’ we are not talking about welcoming people who are being victims of an illegal enterprise,” Turner said.
Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio is negotiating with the federal government to also provide housing for these Central American children, Cranley said.
“They are in negotiations with the federal government not just to be willing to take on some of these children but to put them in foster homes,” Cranley said. “I think that’s the appropriate faith-based response for our community and I support their efforts.”
Staff Writer Lot Tan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.