The Trump administration’s emphasis on immigration has often stoked partisan political battles. Those debates, as loud as they are, sometimes obscure the fact that immigrants are about 14% of the U.S. population.
Immigrants are adjusting and adapting to life throughout the country and most of them are legal residents or naturalized citizens. As we have explored through our research, this includes newcomers settling in the South, in rural areas and all over the heartland.
The successful incorporation of immigrants into U.S. communities is important not only for newcomers themselves, but for everyone – in terms of avoiding the social and political conflict that can accompany demographic changes.
A new destination
Consider what’s happening in Dayton, Ohio, a city that, like many Midwestern towns, has struggled with population loss in recent decades.
Immigrants began settling there in the 1990s, with most coming from Latin America and Asia. Many of these newcomers, who now account for about 5% of the city’s population, are refugees from places like Uzbekistan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The local government has embraced the immigrants and the demographic changes they bring through its Welcome Dayton initiative that we have been following as it unfolds. The municipal program, working with a staff of just three people, helps immigrants get jobs, learn to interact with community institutions, build trust with local police and get accustomed to life in a strange land. It even holds an annual soccer tournament for immigrants.
The initiative started with a small group of religious leaders, academics and government officials motivated by moral and humanitarian concerns to help immigrants successfully settle into Dayton.
But there are also practical reasons for cities like Dayton to encourage immigrants to stay, be part of the community and put down roots.
Shrinking no more
Across America’s so-called Rust Belt, where once buoyant industries have given way to widespread unemployment, populations are shrinking and economies are suffering. Dayton is an example: Its population sank from a peak of 262,300 in 1960 to 141,527 in 2010.
Census data from 2017 indicate that the number of local residents has become stable.
Many signs point to immigrants having made that happen, chief among them that the U.S.-born population has continued to decline. Between 2009 and 2013, it fell by 8.6%, about 13,000 people. During the decade leading up to 2016, the foreign-born population had roughly doubled to about 7,000, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of census data, making the city home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant communities.
The city’s economy is benefiting from the newcomers, who are more educated, on average, than its U.S.-born residents. Immigrants also tend to be more entrepreneurial than people who were born here, making them almost twice as likely to start their own business. According to research by Duke University economics professor Jacob L. Vigdor supported by a pro-immigration group, the arrival of immigrants has been a boon for manufacturing jobs and housing markets in many places like Dayton.