Sunday, June 09, 2002

Foreign-born numbers double

But immigrants still small part of area population

By Ken Alltucker,
and John Byczkowski,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Immigrants seeking a better job or a college education flocked to the Cincinnati area during the 1990s.

        Nearly half of the region's 51,000-plus foreign-born residents arrived over the last decade, mainly from Asia, Africa or Latin America.

        Evidence of this influx can be found from Walnut Hills to West Chester with the emergence of African and Chinese grocery stores, Spanish check-cashing shops and bilingual classes.

        Yet despite the surge of newcomers, Cincinnati remains an overwhelmingly native place.

        In fact, it has the smallest percentage of foreign-born residents among the 50 largest metro regions in the United States, newly released census figures show.

        That's not a surprise to experts and immigrants, who describe Cincinnatians as friendly but say the region's services and institutions for the foreign-born are lacking.

        “Cincinnati is a very conservative city,” said Sofia Moyano-Kleckner, a program manager for Bienesdar, part of Santa Maria Community Services in Price Hill. “It's not used to having many foreign people here.”

        How well immigrants adjust to Cincinnati often depends on their wealth, education and ability to speak English. Those who are more self-sufficient thrive.

        Mir Hussain came to the United States in 1989 with his wife and daughter from Karachi, Pakistan, for “a more secure way of life, more opportunities, a better education,” he said.

        Today he owns Mount Healthy Coin Laundry and lives in Symmes Township.

        He said his wife is proof of the opportunities available: She began work here as a bank teller, and today is branch manager for two of Key Bank's branches, in Madeira and Montgomery.

        At the other end of the spectrum are refugees or migrant workers escaping harsh economic or political conditions.

        Some of these immigrants often have few skills and can't speak English, making it difficult to communicate with police or medical professionals.

        In a city like Hamilton, a growing Hispanic population is putting pressure on an already-tight city budget. The city has three bilingual employees, and two more are taking classes in conversational Spanish, said George Gordon, the city's acting director of finance.

        The demand on city services by immigrants “is a drain, but you have to dedicate those resources or you end up with a real problem,” he said. “That kind of thing is what we have to do to be responsive. And that's important.”

Small in comparison

        The 2000 census found 25,345 foreign-born people in Cincinnati who arrived in this country during the 1990s, boosting the region's foreign-born population to 51,236.

        Despite that big increase, the foreign-born population here was just 2.6 percent of the nearly 2 million people in the region.

        That's the smallest percentage among the nation's 50 largest metro areas, even well below Cleveland and Columbus, both of which have foreign-born populations that are 4.6 percent of each region's total.

        By comparison, four of every 10 Miami-area residents were born in another country, the highest immigrant rate in the United States. Other “gateway” cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and San Diego — round out the top five destinations.

        About 13.2 million immigrants came to America in the 1990s — the greatest number for one decade in U.S. history. Of those, 6.4 million moved to central cities, 6 million to suburbs and the rest to rural areas.

        Some cities and states have latched on to immigration as a key to replenishing a declining or aging population. Civic groups in Pittsburgh and Iowa, for instance, have active campaigns to recruit the foreign-born.

        Although Tristate business leaders aggressively recruit foreign companies, there is no organized effort to bring immigrants to Cincinnati, a city that lost 9 percent of its population in the 1990s.

        A century ago, Cincinnati was one of the top destinations for immigrants, largely from Germany and other European nations. That great wave made Cincinnati one of the 10 largest American cities in 1900.

        But only 7,500 immigrants moved to Cincinnati during the 1990s, a period when more immigrants entered the United States than ever before. That small number of immigrants helped stem the central city's decline.

        Not all experts are convinced that a Cincinnati campaign to attract the foreign born would amount to much because immigrants tend to follow jobs, family and friends.

        William Frey, a University of Michigan demographer, said “wanna-be cities that want to attract foreign-born” despite the absence of immigrant clusters are kidding themselves.

        Immigration tends to occur in two waves, said Carl Rayburn, program director for the International Family Resource Center in Cincinnati.

        First, immigrants from a particular nation arrive in the United States and spread out. When they seem to establish a foothold in a particular community, the rest go to that place. Mr. Rayburn said that appeared to happen in Columbus, which over the last decade has acquired a population of Somali refugees of more than 20,000.

Hispanic boom

        For Cincinnati, “in the Hispanic (community), that effect is beginning to accumulate,” he said. “There seems to be little doubt there'll be growth in the Hispanic community. How much more, I just don't know.

        According to the census, the 13-county metro region's Hispanic population swelled to more than 22,000 as of April 2000. The data on the area's foreign-born residents doesn't indicate where they came from, only that 8,735 are from Latin America.

        Hispanic immigration spiked in the mid-1990s as Greater Cincinnati's economy began to produce more construction and manufacturing jobs than the local work force could fill.

        “Our economy was booming, and the word got around very quickly,” said Margaret Singer, outreach worker for Su Casa in Carthage. “The recession hit, and now September 11, but people are still coming.”

        Many immigrants who settled in near-downtown neighborhoods such as Lower Price Hill and Over-the-Rhine have spread to Westwood, Norwood, Carthage and West and East Price Hill. Butler County's Hamilton and West Chester have booming Hispanic communities, too.

        Not all Hispanics have been welcome, Ms. Singer said.

        Last summer, Hispanics were frequently victims of assaults and robberies in Over-the-Rhine. Because they often carry cash to send to family members in their native countries, community activists theorize they became easy targets for criminals.

        Last February, Ricardo Rangel-Tapia, 19, was shot and killed while stopped at a red light in Mount Auburn. Witnesses heard someone shout an expletive followed by “Mexicans” before the fatal shots came from an adjacent car. No arrests have been made.

        Hispanics have largely vacated an eight-block region of Over-the-Rhine along Elm and Race streets because of the violence, Ms. Singer said.

        Despite the scattered violence, Ms. Singer said many Hispanics have happily found good jobs and schools and improving services.

        “I'm really impressed with Cincinnati,” Ms. Moyano-Kleckner said.

        Cincinnati also has been a popular destination for Africans. There are more than 3,500 area residents born in Africa.

        Bond Hill resident Sam Asmah has noticed small cultural shifts during his quarter of a century in Cincinnati. Ms. Asmah, a native of Ghana, arrived here in 1976 as a graduate student at Xavier University.

        Back then it was difficult to find goods such as gari, which is like farina wheat, or kenkey, a derivative of grits. Now the Northern Kentucky University professor finds whatever African delicacies he craves at Akwaaba, an African market in Forest Park. There are other African shops in Clifton and on Galbraith Road, too.

        While earlier African immigrants typically came to Cincinnati as students, more and more are arriving as refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Skills a must

        Still, Cincinnati can be a difficult place for low-skill immigrants.

        “If you don't have an education, Cincinnati is not a place to be,” said Ephraim Kaba, president of the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Cincinnati.

        Refugees have a tougher time adjusting to life in Cincinnati, said Karen Dabdoub, administrator for the Islamic Center in Butler County. But she added that she sees few who are on welfare.

        “It's difficult for them. They come here as refugees, (and) they're poor to start with,” she said.

        “They work very, very hard to get on their own feet,” she said. “These are the people who do the dirty work the rest of us don't want to do any more — maids, janitors, digging ditches, spreading mulch.”

        Cincinnati's small foreign-born population has both plusses and minuses.

        “Immigrants have the advantage of supplying energetic low-wage workers,” said Anthony Downs, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “That's good for low-wage industries.”

        Charleson Wang, a Taiwan-born immigration lawyer in Silverton, said large numbers of Hispanic immigrants here are in construction. “Without Hispanic workers, the building trades will suffer,” he said.

        Immigration is good for housing as well, Mr. Downs said.

        But large numbers of immigrants strain welfare and education services, and because their incomes are low, they don't pay much in taxes, said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

        For Cincinnati, “you're probably avoiding some significant challenges” by not having a larger immigrant population,” he said.


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