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Immigrants Welcomed: A City Sees Economic Promise

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If there's one common language that some recent immigrants in Dayton, Ohio, seem to share, it's soccer.

The first Dayton World Soccer Games kicked off earlier this year, an initiative hosted by the city to welcome an influx of immigrants. On the field, a rainbow of brightly colored jerseys represented nearly 20 of the different immigrant communities in the city.

"I've been really surprised to see that there's a lot of soccer going on in Dayton," says Adolphe Bizwinayo, who left Rwanda as a refugee.

The sport, he says, has been instrumental in his transition to the unfamiliar city.

"It just brings this joy, like we are home ... like how we used to play soccer back at home when we would play for hours and hours," Bizwinayo says.

That kind of response is exactly why the city launched Welcome Dayton last year — a strategy to help immigrants ease into American life. City Manager Tim Riordan credits two reasons for the adopted framework: It was the right thing to do, he says, and immigrants were needed to help restore the battered city's economy.

"I saw immigrants doing things in the neighborhoods," Riordan says. "They were buying really inexpensive houses and fixing them up. I heard stories from hardware owners where the immigrants would come and buy one window at a time to fix up their house as they got money."

An Investment In The Community

Riordan says changing Dayton's culture is an investment in the city. One section of the city, for example, is now entirely designated as an immigrant business zone, and police can check immigration statuses only when suspicious of a serious crime.

Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, says the relationship between cities and immigrants is certainly evolving.

"What's good about the Dayton program is the way that leaders in those communities talk about immigrants and talk about them as a positive force and contributing," she says.

In fact, a Brookings study finds that immigrants are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than U.S.-born citizens, which is good news for a city like Dayton, which has been bleeding jobs and population for decades.

Legal Immigrants, That Is

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the city's new approach. Steve Salvi runs the Cleveland-based Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, a group focused on illegal immigration. He says officials are relying on a naive myth that immigrants will be the saviors of Dayton.

"I think what the city needs to do is focus on helping native residents and make the city a place where people want to come and start a business if they're immigrants or native-born," Salvi says.

One of his largest concerns is that Dayton could become a sanctuary city, a place harboring illegal immigrants.

City Manager Riordan, however, maintains that the term immigrant is not synonymous with illegal. "Frankly, the good people of Dayton didn't have that kind of attitude," he says. "It was the people from outside of Dayton. I got emails from outside Wyoming and Montana telling us what to do, and I was like, 'Eh, that's not your business.' "

The real thrust of the plan focuses on legal immigrants, Riordan adds. For instance, the city wants to help people like Francis Matias, who worked hard to get his Puerto Rican restaurant, Antojitos, off the ground.

"In other states, it's harder. They're following immigrants and they're treated like criminals. Here, it's great," Matias says in his kitchen.

Other cities, however, are now falling into line with Dayton. Tucson, Ariz., and Salt Lake City, for example, are among those also making it official policy to welcome immigrants and help them feel at home.

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