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Against the grain, Dayton, Ohio, embraces immigrants

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 4:23 PM EDT, Sat October 8, 2011
The city of Dayton, Ohio, wants to become the friendliest place for immigrants and implemented
The city of Dayton, Ohio, wants to become the friendliest place for immigrants and implemented "Welcome Dayton" this week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dayton wants to become a nationally recognized immigrant-friendly city
  • The initiative comes at a time when states are passing tough immigration laws
  • Immigrants are more likely to start businesses and create jobs, the city says

(CNN) -- At a time when the trend among state legislatures is to create tough immigration laws, one Ohio city is pinning its ambitions on an opposite track.

Dayton, with a population of about 140,000, wants to become the friendliest place for immigrants.

Immigrants, officials say, have opened businesses and created jobs in the city's economy, and they hope to reverse the region's economic slowdown by betting on immigrants.

The Dayton City Commission this week accepted the so-called "Welcome Dayton" plan, a framework for policies that could be implemented to make the city a more welcoming place.

The pro-immigrant sentiment in Dayton stands in contrast to a number of high profile laws at the state level targeting illegal immigrants, but it is not a perfect comparison.

The state laws are focused on combating illegal immigration. The city plan has nothing to do with illegal immigration, officials say, but rather with welcoming immigrants and treating all residents with respect.

"Critics conveniently connect the word 'immigrant' with the word 'illegal' when talking about the Welcome Dayton plan, but that's not what this initiative is all about," City Manager Tim Riordan said in a news release. "We have many good people from all nationalities coming here to invest in the community and to build a better life."

But at least a couple of the recommendations made in the Welcome Dayton plan appear to take undocumented immigrants into consideration.

The plan suggests the creation of a municipal identification card for Dayton residents who don't have any other form of ID. Such a card could presumably help undocumented residents who need identification to open bank accounts or apply for driver's licenses and other services.

Another item that could have an impact on those who are in the country illegally is a recommendation that police emphasize immigration status checks only for suspects of serious crimes. Such a policy could protect undocumented immigrants stopped for minor offenses from fearing deportation. It is an opposite approach from those states with laws that seek to have police check the immigration status of everyone they stop.

Other Dayton recommendations include improving the interpreter capabilities offered by the city and creating hiring incentives for government employees to learn a foreign language.

The Welcome Dayton plan also advocates seeking federal grants for English study for immigrants. It also recommends using city lobbyists to advocate for pro-immigrant laws at the state and federal level.

Many of these proposals would be controversial at the federal level, but opposition appeared to be minor in Dayton. At the public hearing where the plan was discussed, 10 members of the public stood up to address the commissioners about it. Nine of the 10 spoke in support of the measure, and the lone dissenter wasn't from Dayton, but from nearby Columbus.

The plan was approved unanimously.

Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell declined to speak to CNN Saturday, and referred to a statement posted on his blog, which he read at the commission meeting.

"This plan is designed to enhance the potential of Dayton as a competitor in the global economy by attracting immigrants who bring new ideas, new perspective, and new talent to our work force," Leitzell said in the statement. "In order to reverse the decades-long trend of economic decline in this city, we need to think globally and recruit the very best from around the world."

Welcome Dayton was hatched from a study of housing conditions for Hispanic residents, which ultimately led to a multiagency, communitywide effort to draft the plan.

When the city asked its residents about the impact of immigrants, they learned that businesses had been started by immigrants. Houses were rehabilitated and underused buildings were reused and rejuvenated, the report found.

According to the city, immigrants are two times more likely than others to become entrepreneurs.

"History proves that closed minds and resistance to change only results in failure," Leitzell said. "To those citizens who are against the Welcome Dayton plan — instead of condemning something that you didn't participate in, volunteer to help us make it better."

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