Springfield leaders outline response to citizen concerns about immigration

More speakers push for kindness toward Haitian community, seek solutions to issues.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Springfield city leaders shared information Tuesday night on steps taken to address citizen concerns about Haitian immigrant issues at another commission meeting dominated by the topic, but the meeting also included more pleas for kindness and solutions.

As in two previous meetings, multiple speakers addressed members of the City Commission, and some speakers were subjected to persistent interruptions by audience members. After repeated warnings, one woman was escorted out of the meeting by city police.

Following the formal session, City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill led commission comments on the immigration topic, with City Law Director Jill Allen providing support. They explained that the Ohio Revised Code classifies most minor traffic offenses as misdemeanors, which prohibits the impounding of vehicles as some suggested city police pursue in response to concerns about Haitian drivers unfamiliar and unobservant of traffic laws.

Following his remarks, multiple speakers took to podiums to comment.

In a notable change, more speakers came forward asking the community to extend kindness and offer solutions rather than simply voice complaints about Haitian newcomers to the city. Their voices nearly equaled those of speakers critical of Haitian immigrants and how city officials have failed in their response.

Maria Fisher said residents are infuriated and said “utter lawlessness” is destroying the community. “I don’t care what color your skin is, if you are here illegally and making our city unsafe, it is a problem,” she said. “I am not racist. I am defending our city. … Letting in undocumented, unvetted immigrants is clearly dangerous.”

Speaker Peg Foley — honored last year with an award recognizing her efforts in fundraising, community leadership and as a Springfield resident — offered information intended to clarify the status of Haitians now living in the community.

“At the last meeting, it seemed many people in the audience believed that the Haitian people in our community are here illegally. To the contrary, I believe that most of our Haitian neighbors have a lawful presence here,” she said.

Foley said Haitian people have immigrated to the United States for decades.

“Many have lawful status by obtaining a green card. Many have sought asylum and are permitted by law to stay until their case is decided,” she said. “Many are here under temporary protected status, first granted in 2010 and most recently extended this year.”

Many Haitians have arrived in Springfield in the last five years. Estimates widely range from 5,000 to 10,000 immigrants in the community now.

City officials detailed recent steps, including the establishment of an Immigration Accountability Response Team, to address citizen concerns.

City Manager Bryan Heck indicated the Response Team is meeting regularly and addressing issues, including employment and housing practices, plus driver’s license requirements related to new immigrants. The team is also working in concert with multiple community organizations to find solutions to concerns.

>> RELATED: Clark County leaders work to provide driving education for local Haitians

Commissioner Crystal Phillips shared information she had received highlighting the positive economic impact Haitian immigrants have had. One local thrift shop has seen such a dramatic increase in business, she said, that their profits donated to charity jumped from the annual average of $18,000-20,000 to $59,000 due to the economic impact of the Haitian community.

“We need to move in love and respect for each other because we truly are the same. … I think It’s very important to value each individual as a person, and not just lump them all together,” Phillips said. “First, we should seek to understand before striving to be understood.”

Foley cited a quote: “Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle…”

She then added: “For years we have had neighbors in Springfield who struggle for safe neighborhoods, decent housing, nutritious food and adequate healthcare. Now we have new neighbors from Haiti who struggle for these same things in addition to learning new customs, a new language and new laws. I want to help our old and our new neighbors, and I look to our City Commission to lead us in this effort.”

About the Author