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Ailing Midwestern Cities Extend a Welcoming Hand to Immigrants

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DAYTON, Ohio — Fighting back from the ravages of industrial decline, this city adopted a novel plan two years ago to revive its economy and its spirits: become a magnet for immigrants.

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The Dayton City Commission voted to make the city “immigrant friendly,” with programs to attract newcomers and encourage those already here, as a way to help stem job losses and a drop in population.

In north Dayton — until recently a post-apocalyptic landscape of vacant, gutted houses — 400 Turkish families have moved in, many coming from other American cities. Now white picket fences, new roofs and freshly painted porches are signs of a brisk urban renewal led by the immigrants, one clapboard house at a time.

“We want to invest in the places where we are accepted better,” said Islom Shakhbandarov, a Turkish immigrant leader. “And we are accepted better in Dayton.”

Other struggling cities are trying to restart growth by luring enterprising immigrants, both highly skilled workers and low-wage laborers. In the Midwest, similar initiatives have begun in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Lansing, Mich., as well as Detroit, as it strives to rise out of bankruptcy. In June, officials from those cities and others met in Detroit to start a common network.

“We want to get back to the entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants bring,” said Richard Herman, a lawyer in Cleveland who advises cities on ideas for development based on immigration.

The new welcome for immigrants reflects a broader shift in public opinion, polls show, as the country leaves behind the worst of the recession. More Americans agree that immigrants, even some in the country illegally, can help the economy, giving impetus to Congressional efforts to overhaul an immigration system that many say is broken.

Concerns about uncontrolled illegal immigration, which produced strict curbs in Arizona and other parts of the country, have not been an issue in Dayton. Officials here say their goal is to invite legal immigrants. But they make no effort to pursue residents without legal status, if they are otherwise law-abiding.

The momentum for change in Dayton came from the immigrants. In 2010, Mr. Shakhbandarov told the newly elected mayor, Gary Leitzell, that he was thinking of asking Turkish immigrants across the United States to settle here. Most of the Turks in Dayton are refugees who fled persecution in Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.

Mr. Leitzell was intrigued. “I said, the worst thing that could happen is that 4,000 Turkish families could come to Dayton and fix up 4,000 houses,” the mayor recalled. “So how do we facilitate their success?”

With 14,000 empty dwellings in the city, officials were open to trying something different.

Officials quickly realized that this city of 141,000 already had a small but fast-growing foreign-born population: more than 10,000 Muslims from different countries; refugees from Burundi and Somalia; college students from China, India and Saudi Arabia; Filipinos in health care jobs; and laborers from Latin America, many here illegally.

“The hospitals, the police, the libraries, the service agencies, the landlords, they were all dealing with immigrants, but no one was talking about it,” said Tim Riordan, the city manager. “So we brought it out of the shadows.”

The officials hosted many town meetings to test whether Dayton’s residents were ready to be hospitable. But the only vocal resistance came from anti-illegal-immigrant groups from other Ohio cities. In October 2011, the City Commission voted unanimously for the Welcome Dayton plan.

Working with local organizations, the city found interpreters for public offices, added foreign-language books in libraries and arranged for English classes. Teachers went back to school to learn other languages.

Local groups gave courses for immigrants opening small businesses and helped families of refugees and foreign students. City officials worked with Wright State University, a public institution, to find ways for immigrant doctors and engineers to cut through bureaucracy and gain certifications so they could practice in the United States.

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Group Aims To Mobilize Immigrant Entrepreneurs

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By DANIELA ALTIMARI, altimari@courant.com The Hartford Courant

5:18 p.m. EDT, October 10, 2013

HARTFORD – Can taco truck owners, Asian grocers and barbers from Bosnia help to spark an economic revival in Hartford?

A new group dedicated to helping immigrant entrepreneurs launch small businesses is banking on the notion. International Hartford aims to become a clearinghouse for immigrant merchants, providing them with information and resources to realize their dreams–and revive Connecticut’s struggling capitol city in the process.

“We are and will continue to be a city of immigrants,” Mayor Pedro Segarra said at the new group’s kickoff event, held Thursday morning at Hartford City Hall. “It is immigrants that have basically built the city.”

Even before European settlers arrived, the place that became Hartford was a trading ground for various Native American tribes, the mayor said. Subsequent waves of immigrants from all over the world settled in the city, each bringing new energy and economic power.



 

But in recent years, city and state leaders emphasized massive and expensive economic revitalization projects, such as Adriaen’s Landing, over smaller scale neighborhood-level businesses. Art Feltman, the executive director of International Hartford, dubbed them “big bang” developments.

“And that’s been successful and that has helped revive the city but it really hasn’t done much for the neighborhoods,” Feltman added. “It hasn’t provided upward mobility…for the people in the neighborhoods of Hartford.”

International Hartford is not an immigrants’ rights advocacy organization. It also is not an investment group making micro-loans to immigrant-owned businesses.

Instead, it will act more as a clearinghouse, or a “cultural broker,” in Feltman’s words, by providing would-be entrepreneurs the resources they need to kickstart their dreams.

The group intends to seek about $55,000 from the city of Hartford to get established, Feltman said.

The group has already met with at least one potential client—a woman from Mexico who hopes to open a taco truck in Colt Park but needed help navigating the maze of government regulations.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who office oversees corporate filings, said she does not know how many of the state’s roughly 350,000 businesses are immigrant-owned. “We are trying to start much more data-collection…I want to know a lot more about who those businesses are,” she said.

But Merrill said the old stereotypes of immigrants don’t hold true. About a third of immigrants in the Hartford area hold college or graduate degrees, she said. “The typical stereotype…we have of the unskilled immigrant worker is no longer valid,” she said. “Most have graduated high school and attended some college…we’re getting a different kind of immigrant now than we had in previous years.”

Merrill recalled her own grandparents, who came to the U.S. from Ireland and, like many immigrants, they opened a business. “Americans instinctively believe this is a land of opportunity,” she said.

Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant

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Hartford Boosts Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Hartford Boosts Immigrant Entrepreneurs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People who immigrate to the United States are twice as likely as native born Americans to start their own businesses. A new organization in Hartford says that entrepreneurial spirit needs to be fostered to help the city’s economy.

For Milagros Cruz, there’s a direct relationship between immigrant owned businesses and the vibrancy of a city. “Just look around Hartford: they create jobs,” she said. “I have one client, who opened a restaurant on Park Street in Hartford, who’s created five jobs.”

In addition to being the daughter of an entrepreneurial family, Cruz is an immigration attorney, and she said in her practice, she has daily experience of the barriers foreign-born entrepreneurs face in starting companies. “It’s a trust issue,” she explained. “Some of my clients I have found come from countries where they don’t trust their government. Banks are part of that government, and so they try to stay away from the mainstream. They try and stay away from anything official, anything government related.”

That led Cruz to help in the formation of a new non-profit called International Hartford. It will partner with immigrants who want to start businesses or who are already entrepreneurs, help them navigate red tape, and access credit and other essential services. It also wants to promote Hartford as a potential destination for entrepreneurial immigrants from elsewhere, who are prepared to make a commitment to the city. “There’s a great deal of interest,” Cruz said. “We have about a dozen clients so far and we haven’t even opened our doors.”

Art Feltman used to work for the city of Hartford, and he’s now the executive director of International Hartford. One of the organization’s early clients wants to open a taco truck; another to import products from his native Morocco. “One of the things that we think that immigrants can help Hartford with,” Feltman said, “is to create those trade links both for import and export that we’re not experiencing right now.”

Feltman and Cruz have led two events this week in the city to introduce their new organization, to both immigrant groups and to potential service providers who might be able to help them. And they’ve attracted interest from state government too. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said the immigrant experience is one which she, along with many Americans, can identify with. “My grandmother was a tough, tough businesswoman,” said Merrill, “and bought a lot of property. She was an Irish immigrant, and she always used to say: I want to own the ground I stand on. She died when she was 98, and worked till the day she died.”

Merrill said her office, which registers all businesses in the state, is looking forward to the connections this new organization can provide, and the data it may generate about just how immigrant businesses affect our economy. Some of those numbers may also challenge stereotypes — for instance, a quarter of all high tech firms in the U.S. are owned by immigrants.

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