Dayton’s immigration-friendly initiative was recently recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for creating an environment that encourages sustainable jobs. The Welcome Dayton plan was adopted by Dayton in October 2011, making it the only Midwestern city attempting to draw more immigrants to become citizens, according to The New York Times.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, Enterprising Cities: A Force for American Prosperity, said Dayton’s plan focuses on creating an immigrant-friendly culture that will draw entrepreneurial immigrants to the city.
Cedarville students have their own part in assisting new immigrants. Two CU community ministries are devoted to working with immigrants. Welcome Center of Dayton Schools ESL focuses on tutoring Spanish, Swahili and Turkish-speaking refugees and immigrants.
Christ the King Refugee Ministry reaches out to refugee children in Dayton, using Bible stories, games, crafts and snacks. Christ the King, founded by student Rijah Shuck in 2011, runs in conjunction with Christ the King Anglican Church and Catholic Social Services of Miami Valley.
Christ the King Anglican Church has had a refugee ministry for several years, ever since a large refugee community settled in its parish, according to church member Barbara Harvey.
“Our mission statement is ‘to offer genuine Christian friendship to the refugee community,’” Harvey said.
The ministry has a wide range of services, including literacy and sewing classes, a community garden, tutoring and Bible instruction for children, clothing distributions, a food pantry and transportation assistance.
“Many of our students have children and are unable to attend ESL classes unless there is childcare provided,” Harvey said. This is where the Cedarville Christ the King Refugee Ministry students are used most.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that Dayton’s population consistently decreased during the past decade, while unemployment increased. The city’s current unemployment rate is 29 percent, which is two times higher than the Ohio average. The dropping population and lack of employment led to abandonment of buildings: more than 14,000 buildings lie empty across the city, the report says.
With these issues in mind, Dayton mayor Gary Leitzell met with a group of Turkish immigrants, he said in a recent New York Times interview. The 2010 meeting was to discuss the immigrants’ desire to invite other groups of Turkish immigrants to settle in the Dayton area.
“The worst thing that could happen is that 4,000 Turkish families could come to Dayton and fix up 4,000 houses,” Leitzell said. “So how do we facilitate their success?”
His chance came shortly afterward, through a meeting with the Dayton Human Relations Council (HRC). After surveying members of the immigrant population in the region, Thomas Wahlrab, former HRC executive director, said he believed more needed to be done to integrate them into the community.
“I met with our mayor, city manager and the commissioners and asked them what we all could do better,” Wahlrab said.
In less than three months, the new immigration initiative had been drafted.
Over the next year, the city of Dayton created a multidisciplinary “Core Team,” which wrote the Welcome Dayton purpose statement and held open meetings for members of the community to ask questions and present concerns.
City manager Tim Riordan said the only complaints the Core Team encountered were from anti-immigration groups from other parts of the state and not from within Dayton. In October 2011, the City Commission voted in favor of implementing Welcome Dayton.
During the short time since its conception, the Welcome Dayton plan boasts a significant list of accomplishments. These accomplishments include improving immigrant relationships with law enforcement, supporting English language learners through academic programs, increasing access to public services for those with limited English proficiency and building awareness of immigrant-friendly services already offered in the city.
“Listening to what immigrants can contribute shifted our debate from ‘they take our jobs’ mindset to the ‘asset-based, community-building model,’” said Migwe Kimemia, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) program director. “We are rebuilding Dayton by infusing new energy instead of cutting costs and services.”
Kimemia, a Kenyan immigrant who works with AFSC’s Dayton Refugee Justice Program, said it is important to address immigrants’ well-being on both a personal and a policy level.
On the personal level, Kimemia is part of a fair-trade coffee roasting co-op that supports African refugees and African coffee growers. “Harambee,” the name of the co-op, means standing in solidarity or sharing resources for community building. The co-op just received approval from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and plans to open its doors in Dayton in early 2014.
On the policy level, Kimemia took part in the open dialogues with the Core Team and encouraged members of the city government to become more informed about immigration.
“The police chief and county sheriff attended the dialogue meetings as well as conferences about immigrant concerns and contributions,” Kimemia said.
Police chief Richard Biehl deals with the issue of immigrant interaction with law enforcement.
“Some members of the immigrant community who are undocumented may be reluctant to come forward because of immigration enforcement,” Biehl said. “Let me make it very clear. We (the police department) don’t do that.”
After the Welcome Dayton implementation, Biehl ordered officers to no longer check the immigration status of crime witnesses, victims and people stopped for minor traffic violations or other low-level offenses.
This does not mean Biehl adopts a laissez-faire attitude toward immigration policy.
“I think everyone generally agrees, particularly in the law enforcement community, we do need to regulate the borders,” Biehl said. “We do need to have a clear, defined policy on immigration. But it should not be in response to our hostility and fear of others.”
English as a Second Language education, a main plank of the Welcome Dayton plan, is being addressed by several entities. The Dayton Metro Library has made many resources available for its patrons, starting with library card applications written in Spanish, executive director Tim Kambitsch said.
The Dayton Metro Library offers ESL materials in multiple formats. They also have books for children and adults in a total of 13 languages. The library website offers practice testing for the U.S. Citizenship Test. Additionally, members can use the library’s language software, which includes self-paced ESL instruction.
“Because many of our new immigrants often live in close-knit neighborhoods with shared language and tradition, our branch locations host initiatives aimed at each community’s specific need,” Kambitsch said.
The initiatives available include Spanish computer literacy classes, providing audiobooks and e-books for the North Dayton Turkish community, and offering a bilingual storytime for a Hispanic community.
The Dayton Public School system has taken a family approach to English education.
“Many families that arrive in Dayton don’t speak English and must rely on their children to translate for them,” said Lori Ward, Dayton Public Schools superintendent. “Because of this, we instituted a ‘Parent University’ series to help parents navigate the school system and learn about community resources available to them.”
Dayton Public Schools made their website available in English, Spanish and Arabic. They also created an office staff position dedicated entirely to incorporating and assisting ESL students and their families.
Former HRC director Wahlrab, recently honored by the White House as one of ten Champions of Change for immigration for his role in Welcome Dayton, attributed the success of the program to the willingness to change and the hard work ethic of Dayton’s citizens.
“I think it took a downturn in the economy to shake people up at first,” Wahlrab said. “But now we are truly coming together as a community and helping one another, regardless of where we were born. I’m excited to see where this takes Dayton in the next 10 years.”
Police Chief Biehl said he hopes that, if anything, Welcome Dayton will replace racism with tolerance.
“When I hear hostility directed to individuals from other countries, I’m stunned,” Biehl said. “When did we forget who we are? We’re a nation of immigrants. That we would ever lose sight of that would truly be a sad commentary on the history of this country.”
Mary Miller is a senior nursing major and off-campus news editor for Cedars. She loves her coffee, enjoys reading and shares her favorite song lyrics at @nsggirlz36.