Changing Gears
11:29 am
Wed February 22, 2012

Midwest leaders lay out the welcome mat for immigrants

While many states in the South and West passed restrictive laws against illegal immigrants last year, officials in Dayton, Ohio were putting out the welcome mat.

And they’re not alone in the Midwest.

In the second part of our look at immigrants and the Midwest, we’ve found many local governments are trying to attract immigrants as an economic development strategy.

Dayton got attention from all over the world last fall when its city commission unanimously approved a plan called Welcome Dayton to make it an “immigrant-friendly city.” Since then, the town has been inundated.

“We have people calling us from South Africa that read about us in the local paper,” Tom Wahlrab, one of the plan’s architects, said recently in Detroit. “We have people from North China that want to immigrate here, they thought we could help them.”

All that attention so far is just for a plan. It’s a rebranding campaign for Dayton, as well as a framework for helping local government make it easier to integrate immigrants into life there, whether that’s buying a house, starting a business or learning English.

Wahlrab spoke at the invitation of Global Detroit, a network of organizations and individuals that describes itself as promoting immigration as an economic development strategy.

Dayton’s attention might have made a few other Midwestern cities a little envious. Global Detroit’s Steve Tobocman was quick to point out that Dayton isn’t the only one trying to get immigrants to relocate.

“We’ve been at it a lot longer, we’ve attracted a lot more money,” he said at the event. “But I believe there is a certain elegance and opportunity in the plan that Dayton has put together. They’ve done certain things so profoundly right that I think we have a lot to learn from it.”

Global Detroit recently received a $2.6 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation that it will use in part to fund small businesses in two predominantly Arab and Hispanic immigrant neighborhoods in Detroit. The money will also go to further fund its Detroit Welcome Mat initiative, which involves 75 local social service agencies that work with immigrants.

Audrey Singer, who studies immigration for the Brookings Institution in Washington, said modern waves of migrants into the U.S. have mostly gone to Chicago, the South or Southwestern United States. Those who relocate to the Midwest are different.

The Midwest attracts “a very strong, small group of immigrants who have higher education levels much higher than other parts of the country,” she said. Her research shows that in Cleveland, there are 169 immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree for every 100 immigrants with a high school diploma or less. Pittsburgh has the highest ratio of any metropolitan area in the country – 391 high skilled immigrants for every 100 low-skilled immigrants.

In the U.S., those concentrations of high skilled immigrants are found only along the East Coast – and across the Great Lakes states.

Singer thinks that’s one reason why governments in this region tend to be more welcoming to immigrants.

One such place is Addison, Illinois, about 20 miles west of Chicago. It’s a small town – technically, a village – and the type of place where the Mayor has his home phone listed on the town’s website. In the past fifteen years, the number of immigrants living in Addison has grown to almost half the town’s 40,000 residents.

Addison’s Mayor, Larry Hartwig, told me that 34 percent of the community is also foreign-born. While most of the immigrant population is Mexican, there’s also a growing Polish, Albanian and Southeast Asian population. A Hindu temple was recently built nearby.

I spoke with Hartwig at the Henry Hyde Community Resource Center. It was deliberately built in what used to be a tough neighborhood, in hopes of turning it into a more hospitable place.

Now, about one hundred local kids come here after school. There are 750 adults who use it in the morning and evenings for ESL classes – so many, in fact, that the center has a waiting list.

Hartwig says that integrating immigrants, some of whom have come directly from small towns in Mexico, has required adjustments for everyone. It’s something the town has worked hard at for the past 15 years. A few years ago, the village hired consultants who provided cross cultural training for key people in town. Those people, in turn, have trained others – even the local PTA groups at Addison’s schools.

“From village halls to the schools to the park district everyone’s making a concerted effort to see what can be done to integrate the community,” said Kiki Deluna, a first generation Mexican-American who is the executive director of the Resource Center.

Unlike Dayton or Detroit, Addison never promoted itself as a place for immigrants to move to – they came on their own. But Mayor Hartwig said that now the town realizes “the essential role immigrants play in our economic development”.

Hartwig wants to be clear that he doesn’t think Addison is doing things perfectly. But he knows that Addison has to be successful at integrating the entire community.

“Immigrants are going to be an important part of our workforce,” he said. “If we are out in front welcoming and integrating and making it work I think it’s going to give us a great competitive advantage, over other areas of the country, and probably other areas of the world.”

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.