Why you should care
Because immigration can be the solution, not the problem.
Having toured half the country for OZY’s States of the Nation project, reporter Nick Fouriezos reflects on the lessons learned from his travels around this imperfect union.
Downtown Nashville is naturally honky-tonk obsessed, but if you slink into certain alleyways, you might find yourself — as I did — swing dancing to big-band music at a New Orleans–inspired speakeasy or watching a burlesque show at a vintage French hideaway. Go south, and the city becomes a multicultural corridor, boasting the largest Kurdish population outside the Middle East. Here, women in hijabs dance country and cheer on the Tennessee Titans, while a Muslim grocery store owner opens his shop to a Mexican chef cooking tacos with halal meat.
As I traveled the country, it quickly became evident that many Rust Belt and Southern cities are becoming new gateway cities — perhaps still modest ones compared to Los Angeles, Miami and New York, but ascendant nonetheless. It is perhaps ironic that these cities, most of them embedded firmly in Trump-voting country, are also more reliant on immigration than most urban areas. Having experienced white flight and population decline in the mid- to late-2000s, these cities rely on foreigners to replenish their communities.
In states like Ohio … changing perspectives are crucial when reaching for a more sustainable future.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Dayton, aka the Gem City but home to the highest overdose death rate in Ohio, which in turn had the highest overall number of opioid-related deaths of any state in the nation last year. Huddled in the Life Enrichment Center on weekday nights, recovering addicts and their families gather to tell their stories. As I noted earlier this year, it seemed as if their one shared trait was tired eyes: Dayton has become a city of tired eyes.
However, as deaths have taken their toll, the city has also emerged as a surprising leader in attracting immigrants. After losing 11 percent of its native-born population from 2009 to 2014, Dayton saw a 62 percent increase in foreign-born residents in that same time frame, in part through recruitment efforts such as the Welcome Dayton initiative, which began in 2011. As the opioid crisis continues to ravage cities, medical treatment and mental health services will be needed to stem the tide, but in the meantime, immigrants can provide some relief to suffering neighborhoods.
Greg Fischer, dubbed the “most innovative mayor in America” by his peers, launched the Global Louisville Action Plan to help integrate new immigrants, a no-brainer solution to help fill the city’s 30,000 unfilled jobs. Half of Louisville, Kentucky’s population growth is coming from foreign-born residents, and the hard-data, softhearted mayor wants to ride that wave. His Cradle to Career program uses statistics to predict education outcomes, potentially diagnosing roadblocks to achieving success so problems can be addressed at an early age, which will be a particular boon to both minority and immigrant populations in his city, who disproportionately face income and education gaps.
The story isn’t always so rosy: There’s been a shocking uptick in homicides in the past 18 months, with murders up 14 per 100,000 compared to 8.3 per 100,000 in 2014. One Russian immigrant who lives in the city’s poorer west side said she fears walking the streets after a drug-deal murder went down two doors from her home. Louisville and its techie mayor will need to find a solution or risk alienating new residents.
Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, voted for Trump and believes the president has done what he needed to do to protect the nation from terrorism. But he worries about the president’s protectionist policies, because, like many in agriculture, he believes a trade slowdown would hurt business. However, an immigration decline (or ban) could also spell particular trouble for the burgeoning lamb industry, which has grown in major part because of American Muslims and seems poised to compete more globally amid an Australian flock shortage. As Jeff Bielek, an NPR-listening former Clevelander who now raises sheep in Wooster, says, “We’re a beef country. People are fixated: They raise what they grew up with. But it’s like how you can’t have the same job your father and grandfather had — you can’t go to the auto plant, you can’t go to the coal mine. Sheep is maybe a change where people will have to be more open-minded.” And in states like Ohio, which produces the most sheep east of the Mississippi River, changing perspectives are crucial when reaching for a more sustainable future.