Changing Gears: Midwest Embraces Immigrants

Kids play at the Henry Hyde Community Resource Center.
Kids play at the Henry Hyde Community Resource Center.

Dayton got lots of attention last fall when it approved a plan to make it an "immigrant-friendly city". They call it Welcome Dayton. Tom Wahlrab (Walrub) is one of the architects.

Wahlrab: We have people calling us from South Africa that read about us in the local paper. We have people from North China that want to immigrate here, they thought we could help them.

(bring up ambi)

The goal of Welcome Dayton is to integrate immigrants into life in the city: whether that's buying a house, starting a business or learning English.

Wahlrab was speaking in Michigan, at the invitation of Global Detroit, a network that promotes immigration as an economic development strategy.

Global Detroit's Steve Tobocman was quick to point out that Dayton isn't the only city trying to attract immigrants.

Tobocman: We've been at it a lot longer, we've attracted a lot more money - but I believe there is a certain elegance and opportunity in the plan that Dayton has put together.

Global Detroit just received a $2.6 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation. Much of the money will be used to to help small businesses in Arab and Hispanic immigrant neighborhoods.

Audrey Singer studies immigration for the Brookings Institution. She says most immigrants go to Chicago or the South or Southwestern U.S. But there's something different about immigrants who do come to the Midwest.

Singer: But what those places do have now are a very strong, small group of immigrants who have higher education levels much higher than other parts of the country.

Singer's done research that shows that across the Midwest - especially cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh - the immigrants who do come are well educated - with at least a college degree.

Singer thinks that's one reason why governments in this region are trying to attract immigrants.

Singer: Chicago and the state of Illinois have really led the way in terms of the infrastructure around incorporating and supporting immigrants.

Addison, Illinois is about 20 miles west of Chicago. It's a village of 40,000, and today, almost half the population is made up of minorities.

Hartwig: 34 percent of the community is foreign born.

That's Addison's Mayor, Larry Hartwig. 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.

(Ambi: Jadi, where were you yesterday?)

The mayor met me at the Henry Hyde Community Resource Center. It was specifically in what used to be a tough neighborhood. Now, about one hundred local kids come here after school and hundreds more adults use it in the morning and evenings for English classes.

Hartwig says integrating immigrants - some who have come directly from small towns in Mexico- has required adjustments for everyone. 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.

Kiki DeLuna is the resource center's director. She's also first generation Mexican-American.

DeLuna: 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.

Unlike Dayton or Detroit, Addison never promoted itself as a place for immigrants to move to - they came on their own. But Mayor Hartwig says now,

We realize 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 thinks the village has tried hard to integrate all of its residents into each other's lives - because doing that successfully gives Addison a competitive advantage not just over Chicago, the Midwest, or even the entire country - but the rest of the world.

For Changing Gears, I'm Niala Boodhoo.

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