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Some U.S. cities are struggling with immigrants. But Dayton welcomes them.

Downtown Dayton sits on the bank of the Great Miami River, as seen on Oct. 2, 2022.
Jordan Laird
Downtown Dayton sits on the bank of the Great Miami River, as seen on Oct. 2, 2022.

The smell of carne asada wafts through the air. The warm orange and green paint adorn the walls of El Gaban, a restaurant in Trotwood.

Mexican immigrant Jorge Ramirez bought the restaurant in suburban Dayton two years ago, but he's been in the area for ten years now. He said he came here for the reason a lot of immigrants do.

“Looking for the best life. The violence in my country is too much and every day there’s more,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez is not the only immigrant that traveled to Dayton looking for what he calls “the best life.”

While some big cities like Chicago and New York are struggling with an influx of migrants, smaller communities in the country’s Rust Belt – like Dayton – have been working to establish themselves as “immigrant-friendly.”

The city’s population – at 135,000 – is half of what it was during its heyday in the 1960s. A saving grace has been a rise in the number of immigrants who call the city home.

The numbers are small–over 6,000 immigrants live here. But according to immigrant research group New American Economy, Dayton’s immigrant population increased by 25% between 2014 and 2019.

And Tom Thompson – who works with immigrants – said there are plenty of reasons why.

“It's a great cost of living here as compared to other places in the United States, coupled with the fact that there are lots of opportunities for employment, including employment for people whose English is not their first language,” he said.

Thompson is the executive director for Valens Solutions, a local nonprofit which helped bring a new legal clinic to the Dayton area last October. Called Immigrant Connection Dayton, the clinic provides a variety of services.

“Helping people get their green cards, helping them apply for citizenship or temporary protected status..we've had some DACA cases as well,” said Thompson.

Access to IDs

There’s also a long running initiative called Welcome Dayton. This program has been in place for over a decade. It’s designed to help integrate the new and growing migrant population.

Welcome Dayton Coordinator Jeannette Horwitz said one step the initiative took was to set up the Miami Valley Community ID program.

“So not a driver's license, and not a state federal ID, but just proof of who you are and that you are living in this area and that you're part of this community,” said Horwitz.

The community ID is accepted by local police departments, health care providers, and Dayton public schools. It’s an effort that Ramirez helps run, assisting with technology and registration.

A smiling man in a red jacket seated at a restaurant booth with a menu placed in front of him.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
Jorge Ramirez owns El Gaban in Trotwood, Ohio

“I worked with IDs in Mexico. So when I [saw] the program I loved it. The first day I said ‘oh I want to be part of this because this is a great help for the community,’” said Ramirez.

Since the program started back in late 2021, Horwitz said over 1,000 IDs were distributed.

The city also has a language access policy in local government, in which translators must be made available for residents with limited English proficiency.

It’s these programs that allowed the city to earn a distinction early on for its immigrant inclusion efforts. Dayton was the first city to be “certified welcoming” in 2017 by the national nonprofit Welcoming America.

Instead of the presence of immigrants being regarded as an issue, Dayton invites them.

Ramirez said he can’t imagine living anywhere else. He said as an immigrant, being welcomed is the best feeling you can ask for.

And when he meets new immigrants at his father-in-law’s store, they express the same sentiment.

“Sometimes I ask ‘why’d you come here?’ They say ‘Oh, because I have one friend and they said that the city is great, not racist. They said you can feel free.’”

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905