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A Rust Belt city works for an immigrant-friendly future

The Burundi team at the soccer games.  Back row (left to right): Nsabimana Dieudonne, Nijebariko Damiyano, Hubert Matumaini, Santino M., Pascal Muhiziwintore, Kali N., Yolo K., Roston Kanyembo, Ruben C. Front row: Elias Bizimana, Lumbala Moses, Emmanuel Makamu, Mohamed Ahmed, Paul Ngendakuriyo, Paul M.

Redefining recovery

Dayton, Ohio is making a statement: Ours is a city where everyone can contribute. Its 2011 Welcome Dayton resolution to be an immigrant-friendly city takes a positive, economically driven approach to integrating immigrants into the community as part of the city’s recovery.

Since the plan was introduced, lawmakers elsewhere have started to take notice—even in Arizona, where Tucson passed a similar measure in 2012. In Washington, D.C., policymakers and thought-leaders in favor of immigration reform can point to the community support and collaboration in Dayton as a sign that people are eager to move past the days of treating immigrants as secondclass citizens and criminals.

But for the city itself, the resolution did more than make space for immigrant friendly policies; it is also building community among neighbors in a place that suffers from racial segregation and alienation.

For the better part of the decade before Welcome Dayton was passed in 2011, AFSC was laying the groundwork for a welcoming culture that respected immigrants’ rights. This was before the recession hit Dayton—before General Motors closed shop and 10,000 people lost their jobs. There was little anti-immigrant rhetoric compared to what we see in the U.S. today.

In 2004, Migwe Kimemia had been working for AFSC’s African debt cancellation campaign for two years. With colleagues from various AFSC programs, he traveled from Dayton to San Diego to visit a border community, where he heard shocking stories of hundreds of immigrant deaths.

He returned to Dayton inspired to stand in solidarity with Hispanic immigrants struggling for human dignity. “We started organizing in Dayton, collaborating with Hispanic advocates to pass a city resolution for undocumented Mexicans to use national IDs for banking, police stops, etc.,” says Migwe. In 2007, AFSC’s work in Dayton shifted to empowering Iraqi and African refugees to have a voice and navigate the system during resettlement.

These periods of advocacy helped build understanding and mutual respect between immigrant advocates and city officials. Instead of demonizing public officials, Migwe and other immigrant advocates engaged them in dialogues that helped craft policies that were more humane.

Open dialogues continued as the economic downturn set in. “We had started engaging our community before it happened,” he says. “It was not difficult for us to continue, even when the political climate was so difficult.”

Even the police chief and county sheriff attended dialogue meetings and conferences about immigrant concerns and contributions. Though people didn’t always agree on issues, they listened to neighbors tell their experiences and dreams for the future.


Listening to what immigrants can contribute shifted the debate from “they take our jobs” to the so-called “asset-based community-building model.” Rebuilding by infusing new energy—rather than by cutting costs and services—resonated in Dayton, where there’s a long tradition of entrepreneurship.

As program director with AFSC, Migwe Kimemia
helped launch the Welcome Dayton Plan.

The Welcome Dayton Plan positions the Rust Belt city to become a competitor in the global economy by “attracting the best and brightest” from around the world and encouraging them to start new businesses.

It also states a belief that encouraging immigrants on a path to citizenship is a responsible way to integrate new immigrants who call Dayton home.

“The plan leaves federal immigration law enforcement to the feds, and instead focuses on making our community one that treats all people kindly, fairly, and humanely,” says Tom Wahlrab, executive director of the city’s Human Rights Council.

Denying immigrants the opportunity to pursue their dreams leads to public costs—homelessness, crime, prison—that no one wants. “We see immigrants as people who have gifts, talents, and dreams like everyone else,” says Migwe, who now works mostly with refugees, providing workshops on entrepreneurship and fair trade initiatives.

Change doesn't come overnight, and there is still tension surrounding the arrival of new immigrants. But it’s hard not to be optimistic when there are signs of movement in a positive direction.

Take the first Dayton World Soccer Games, based on the model AFSC started in 2010. Held last fall, the tournament had a simple premise: residents of all ages and backgrounds play together, meeting new friends who share their hope for a more peaceful world.

“We bring people together before the games to practice,” explains Methode Matumaini, one of the organizers of the games. Waiting on the sidelines, people talk about other things happening in their lives—work, school—and get to know each other as individuals.

These human moments are what Welcome Dayton is really about.

“You don’t want your friend to be deported—you know they have dreams like you; your children are friends,” says Migwe. “How could you turn around and hate such a person?”