Welcome Dayton, the city’s welcome mat to immigrants, was launched almost three years ago in an effort to reverse years of population decline and to spur the local economy.
A city survey has found attitudes toward foreign-born newcomers are generally positive among city residents - with some exceptions. And immigrant naturalizations - foreign-born residents becoming U.S. citizens - in 2012 climbed to its highest number since 1990.
But city officials contend the success of the Welcome Dayton plan hinges on involving the entire community, and survey data show some community members feel uneasy about living around immigrants, while others retain negative views of foreigners altogether.
The Welcome Dayton initiative seeks to eliminate barriers that make it difficult for immigrants to attend school, find work, establish businesses, access government services and integrate into the community.
“They have really thought about this kind of holistically — as a whole community — and not sort of what government can do, but what the entire community can do to build its capacity and create a welcoming culture throughout,” said Rachel Steinhardt, deputy director of Welcoming America, a nonprofit based in Georgia that supports communities that adopt immigrant welcoming plans.
Creating an immigrant-friendly community is the right thing to do because people of all backgrounds and cultures deserve fair treatment and a nurturing place to live, said Melissa Bertolo, the city’s Welcome Dayton program coordinator.
But Bertolo said the plan is also a smart strategy for economic growth. Many immigrants are highly skilled and educated, and they have far higher rates of entrepreneurship than native populations, she said.
Immigrants will bolster the local economy by starting new businesses, creating new jobs, rehabilitating deteriorating neighborhoods and making other investments, she said.
Immigrants choose where to live based on many considerations, including proximity to family and economic and academic opportunities, said Steinhardt.
But the receptiveness of a community to immigrants will certainly help attract and retain migrants, and Dayton has been a national model for welcoming initiatives because its approach is comprehensive and community-minded, she said.
Measuring the effect of immigrant-friendly policies can be tricky, since it can be years before a plan demonstrably impacts a region’s population or economy, Steinhardt said.
But the local immigrant population is steadily growing.
U.S. Census data show foreign-born residents accounted for 4.1 percent of Dayton’s population in 2012, up from 3.7 percent in 2011 and 2 percent in 2000. The data’s margin of error makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact extent of growth.
About 760 students are enrolled in Dayton Public Schools’ English language learner program, which is up from 680 last year and 540 the year before that.
In fiscal year 2012, about 886 immigrants in the Dayton region became citizens, which was the largest number in any year since at least 1990, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.
Naturalizations were up 52 percent from the prior year, and Dayton had one of the larger increases among U.S. urban areas, the data show.
Come for family, stay for affordability
On Thursday afternoon, 50 immigrants from a diverse group of countries packed into a federal courtroom in downtown Dayton and took the oath of allegiance and officially became U.S. citizens.
After pledging allegiance to the flag and accepting their certificates of citizenship, many new citizens hugged or shook hands with friends and family members who were in attendance.
Eldar Kuchiyev, 23, who is Turkish and grew up in Russia, said he moved to Dayton from New Jersey in 2010 to be with his family.
“I wanted to be near my family, because it’s better than to live with nobody,” he said. “Our culture usually likes to live with the family … we like to live in the same place, all together.”
Syed Baqri, 23, who is from Pakistan, said he decide to move to this part of southwest Ohio because he learned that it was affordable from an uncle who lived here.
“In New York, you cannot afford a house,” said Baqri, who just purchased a house in Monroe. “You can get a nice one here for a cheaper price.”
The Dayton region is not a traditional gateway city for immigrants, like New York City or Los Angeles, but often it is a secondary destination. Immigrants often are drawn to the region by its low cost of living and other advantages, and family members and friends tend to follow their loved ones.
The city is not marketing or advertising in other places to lure immigrants to Dayton, Bertolo said.
Instead, the city is investing in programs such as the Immigrant Community Leadership Institute, which is a series of workshops designed to teach immigrants about taxes, banking and other essential activities.
The city also is training workers to connect translators and residents who struggle with English. City departments are working to offer its most critical documents in different languages.
Word of Dayton’s affordability, livability and culture of acceptance and support will spread across immigrant communities, undoubtedly compelling people to relocate to the area, Bertolo said.
“If you don’t have the community on board, then it is a lot more difficult to create that welcoming environment,” said Paul McDaniel, the immigrant entrepreneur and innovation fellow at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
City officials also said they are paying close attention to community opinions about immigrants and how those views change as more welcoming policies are implemented.
Last year, Wright State University’s Center for Urban and Public Affairs surveyed more than 770 adult Dayton residents about their attitudes toward immigrants. About 70 percent of respondents said they were comfortable living near immigrants, and minorities and college-educated residents were the most comfortable with having immigrants as neighbors, according to the survey.
But less than 60 percent of respondents said they were comfortable living in a neighborhood where immigrants are the majority of residents. White residents and men were the least comfortable living near immigrants, and males were more likely to have negative views of immigrants, the survey found.
Gabriela Pickett is a board member on Dayton’s Human Relations Council and the curator of the Missing Peace Art Space on South Dutoit Street.
Pickett moved to Dayton about 10 years ago after immigrating to the United States from Mexico.
Pickett said after the economic downturn she felt some tension living in Dayton, because it seemed people became more hostile to undocumented foreigners and assumed she was one of them.
But Pickett said the Welcome Dayton plan has helped reduce prejudice locally because community members are connecting on a personal and cultural level through a slew of events and programs.
“People are beginning to recognize Dayton as a city that has been enriched by the different cultures and the people living here,” she said. “We are a city of innovators, and this is a new way to reinvent ourselves.”
The city has hosted cultural events that seek to increase interactions between residents of all ethnicities, including a Día de los Muertos parade and celebration and the “Dayton World Soccer Games,” which features local players representing different nationalities and communities facing off on the soccer field.
Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan said changing the local culture will take time, but community members continues to rise to the challenge of doing “one more thing” to be more supportive and helpful.
“People’s attitudes don’t change in a day, and I think part of our program has been bringing people together,” he said. “If you don’t know anybody, (their culture) is a mystery and it seems, ‘This is something I don’t know, so I must not like it.’ It’s a slow but sure process of people getting to know and interact with one another.”