Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
To be far from home in a major, diverse metropolis such as New York or Los Angeles is one thing. But those who have landed in small cities across the Midwest face a whole other sort of isolation.
CINCINNATI—When they were deciding where to settle down and raise a family, Lorena Mora-Mowry, a lawyer from Venezuela, and her husband Paul, a mechanical engineer from California, performed extensive research. Based on reports they read in magazines and brochures, they decided that Cincinnati, with its low cost of living, access to arts and the outdoors, and strong schools, would be a good place to live. They moved here in 1995.
It was a difficult transition from (relatively) open-minded, Latino-heavy Southern California to Cincinnati, where just about everybody was either white or black, and where immigrants were a rarity. Mora-Mowry tried to speak to people in stores, but they could never understand her accent, and she hated the long, cold winters.
“I became mute,” she told me. “I was so unhappy.”
Even when she’d been in the city for years and her daughter was school-aged, Mora-Mowry found it difficult to connect with the other mothers. She would turn on the TV and see news about football and fires and not much else. When a local newspaper said it wasn’t interested in a column about Latinos, she started reaching out to Latinos herself and interviewing them. She put the videos on YouTube, and now, through a website she created, MujerLatinaToday.com, she says she now has a virtual family of other Latinos across the country. But she still sometimes feels uneasy in Cincinnati.
“I feel like we live in a parallel world,” she said. “We live in the same city, but their news is not my news.”
Mora had left a metropolitan area with a foreign-born population of millions to live in a place with a foreign-born population of about 10,000 at the time she arrived. Many of the foreigners in her adopted city worked for one of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered there, such as Procter & Gamble, or attended universities such as Xavier and the University of Cincinnati. When she moved to Cincinnati, more than two decades ago, there were only around 2,400 people of Hispanic or Latino origin in the city, according to data.
Mora-Mowry is one of the hundreds of thousands of people from other countries who have immigrated to one of America’s Rust Belt cities in the past decade. Though her story is unique, hardship is common among many of these immigrants, who find less infrastructure and fewer familial bonds in cities with small foreign-born populations, such as Cincinnati. Though the Rust Belt was once a hub for immigrants in the 19th century, foreign-born people became rare commodities in the second half of the 20th century. In Cincinnati, for instance, 28 percent of the population in 1880 was foreign-born, according to the Census Bureau. By 1980, only 2.8 percent was.
Foreign-Born as a Percentage of Cincinnati Population
Census Bureau / Datawrapper
Yet just about every city in the Rust Belt is now trying to attract more immigrants to reverse decades of population decline. This trend started in 2011 with Welcome Dayton; Mosaic in St. Louis and Global Detroit recently launched to do the same thing; and, earlier this month, an op-ed in The New York Times proposed encouraging Syrian refugees to resettle Detroit. Not to be left behind, Cincinnati mayor John Cranley announced last year that he wanted to make his city the most immigrant-friendly place in the United States.
“The economic advantage to the city, if we can figure out how to get more immigrants here, is that it'll be a rising tide that'll lift all boats,” Cranley told me, when we met in his office. “It'll infuse more economic activity, it'll repopulate depressed and blighted neighborhoods that have abandoned buildings, it will bring more flavor to life.”
The strategy seems to be working in some Midwest cities. Places with relatively small immigrant populations experienced some of the fastest growth rates of foreign-born residents in the last decade, according to the Brookings Institution. Cities including Scranton, Indianapolis, and Louisville all doubled their immigrant populations between 2000 and 2010. Dayton has been heralded for its immigrant-friendly policies, which include instructing police not to ask about immigration status when they pull someone over, and it won an award for the U.S. Conference of Mayors for its Welcome Dayton program.
Still, when politicians talk about attracting immigrants, they’re usually talking about entrepreneurs or people with much-needed talents or skills. Those are the people who can get visas, after all, who can afford to buy homes and start businesses that will rejuvenate the economy of a struggling city. But increasingly, small cities are also attracting the people who don’t have money or education, but who willingly do miserable, back-breaking jobs—cleaning houses, washing dishes, packing food. These immigrants find opportunities in their adopted cities, but also overwhelming challenges that might seem more manageable in diverse hubs such as Los Angeles or New York.
Those metropolises and others would be unimaginable and desolate without the immigrants who hustle through them every day, on their way to jobs, school, the future. Now, other, smaller, metro areas are beginning to grapple with the task of integrating those born abroad. Their efforts to assimilate people who don’t speak fluent English and who look very different from the majority of the population will be the story of immigration in the 21st century.
Isela Mora found it difficult to adapt in Cincinnati when she moved there as an undocumented worker, following her father, in 1999. She quickly found a job washing dishes and she and her husband shared a one-bedroom apartment with her father, which made it affordable. When her husband started abusing her, though, Mora didn’t want to call police and get deported, and her English wasn’t strong enough to seek out resources that might have helped. So she put up with abuse for years, she told me, all while raising three children and getting evicted time and again because landlords didn’t like her husband’s constant drunkenness.
“All I could think was: ‘If the police come, we will be deported and they will take my children away,’” she told me recently.
The immigrants of the past had labor unions, urban schools, settlement houses, and communities at large manufacturing plants to help them acclimate. Today, those institutions are in decline, the nation is divided on immigration, and education is much more essential for immigrants and their children to get ahead, according to Theo Majka, a professor at the University of Dayton who has studied the new immigrant communities there. Without anyone to advocate for immigrants, mainstream institutions “can either facilitate the incorporation of newcomers or create unnecessary obstacles and difficulties that push some toward marginal positions,” Majka and his wife, Linda Majka, wrote in a chapter about Latino immigrant experiences in Dayton in the book Latinos in the Midwest.
The Majkas surveyed Latino immigrants in Dayton in 2006 and 2007, before the city had started to welcome new arrivals. They found that language obstacles were immigrants’ biggest challenge, leading to a lack of promotions at work and problems receiving proper medical care. Sometimes, injured workers wouldn’t receive compensation from their employer. Other times, they were ignored by teachers who were frustrated by their poor English. Transportation was also a problem, since most immigrants couldn’t obtain a driver’s license and the region does not have a robust public-transit system.
“They say it was just horrible because nobody spoke Spanish, if they’re coming from Mexico, coming from Chicago, they just didn’t have any realization that everything would be in English, that they wouldn’t even see a Hispanic face,” said Sister Maria Stacy, the director of the Hispanic Catholic Ministry in Dayton, about Spanish-speaking immigrants when she first arrived at the ministry, 13 years ago. “They felt they were isolated, and to get services was really difficult.”
Efforts to make immigrants in Dayton feel more welcome were, at first, rejected,such as a proposal to allow the Mexican Consulate to offer Matricula cards, which are forms of ID issued to Mexican nationals living in the United States.
Dayton is now a much more welcoming place, both Theo Majka and Sister Maria Stacy told me. In 2008, the police chief put out an executive order instructing officers not to ask the immigration status of witnesses or victims of crime. There’s an ongoing series of events at which Dayton natives meet immigrants, including an annual soccer tournament. More institutions are providing translators or documents in Spanish and other languages including Turkish, because it also has a large Ahiska Turkish population.
Dayton has led smaller Rust Belt cities in integrating immigrants. Many of its neighbors are further behind.
Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, had 21,513 Hispanic residents in 2011, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, making up 3 percent of the population. In the counties that house Ohio’s two other big cities, Cleveland and Columbus, Hispanics were 5 percent of the population in 2011. In Lucas County, where Toledo, a smaller city than Cincinnati, is located, Hispanics made up 6 percent of the population in 2011.
Immigrants from other countries were even less common. In 2000, only about 1,900 people in Hamilton County were born in China. Only about 800 were born in the Middle East. About 2,700 were born in Africa, according to this nifty map.
When Titus Nzioki moved to Cincinnati 35 years ago to attend college, there were only about 500 people born in Africa living in the county. Nzioki, born in Kenya, was an unusual college student at age 27, and worked 40 hours a week at a warehouse while he went to school full-time. He eventually saved up enough money to start his own business selling African goods, married, bought a house and raised two daughters.
But Nzioki doesn’t want to stay in Cincinnati when he retires. Everybody in America calls him “Titus” instead of his given name, “Mbindyo,” because his given name is too hard to pronounce. He says he doesn’t have friends, per se, just acquaintances with whom he exchanges pleasantries and talks about the weather. He looks forward to the vacation he takes, every year, back to Kenya.
“No matter how long I'm here, it's never going to be home,” Nzioki told me from behind the counter where he spends every day, from 10 to 8.
He has no regrets—his children had shoes and their own toys and even their own rooms, and he was able to develop a successful business in Cincinnati, but it’s been many years of long hours and he misses Kenya. He thinks he’ll go back for many months at a time when he retires, like a snow bird, and wants to be buried there. He knows how fortunate he is to be able, as a dual citizen, to have options.
“Everyone in the world wants to come to America,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the people who live outside her want to come here.”
But does everyone in the world want to come to America to live in a small city with few immigrants?
Cincinnati is located on the border with Kentucky, and is the most conservative city in Ohio, an increasingly conservative state, said Alfonso Cornejo, the president of the Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A host of factors make it less welcoming to immigrants than other cities, he said. The most popular local talk radio host, Bill Cunningham, frequently spews vitriol about “illegals” and immigration. The sheriff of Butler County, immediately to the north of Cincinnati, Richard K. Jones, has taken a vocal anti-immigration stance, sending an open letter to the president of Mexico asking for a reimbursement of $900,000 for “dealing with your criminals.” Jones has posted billboards with pictures of himself reminding businesses that it’s illegal to hire undocumented workers, erected signs outside the county jail that say “illegal aliens here,” and said that “illegal aliens” are responsible for increasing violence in his community.
Meanwhile, in a two-square-mile area of Butler County, every single Latino resident lives below the federal poverty line, according to a local report.
As a result, Cincinnati may have a tougher time attracting immigrants than do other Rust Belt cities, Cornejo said.
“If you have five cities begging you to come to work there, where are you going to go? To the location that makes you feel welcome,” he said. “I think it’s a great future, and we’re attracting more immigrants, but it’s not as easy as it is in other cities.”
Cities in Ohio might have more trouble than other Rust Belt neighbors, too. A study released last month out of UCLA found that Ohio is 50th in the nation for having policies and laws that support the health and well-being of undocumented immigrants. Ohio ranked last because it provides little to no health insurance to undocumented children or pregnant women, has no state-issued ID card for undocumented residents and has not tried to limit the reach of Secure Communities, the federal immigration-enforcement program.
Of course, some of the problems undocumented residents face in these Rust Belt cities are no different than those faced by undocumented residents everywhere.
One woman I met in Cincinnati, whom I’ll call Maria, is raising a son by herself, with no English skills and no car. Her son is a happy American kid, speaks English, and is obsessed with wolves. But in order to earn a living, she’s had to leave him with people she barely knows. Unlike many of the working poor in this country, who can get vouchers for childcare, Maria couldn’t apply for or receive any such vouchers because she is undocumented.
“Immigrants can’t get childcare vouchers, so they end up relying on incredibly sketchy arrangements,” said Nancy Sullivan, who met Maria through Transformations CDC, a local nonprofit.
It isn’t just the undocumented immigrants who feel a sense of unease in Cincinnati. Cornejo, of the Chamber of Commerce, says there have been many instances of Latino children being bullied at school because of their parents’ birthplace. He blames conservative talk media.
“If you listen in your grandparents’ car, you learn words that are hate words, like illegal aliens, drainers of the economy,” he said. “They’re words that a kid that is 6 or 7 years old will not use in their vocab, but they are getting it through the media.”
Mora-Mowry told me she had friends who had bilingual skills who couldn’t find jobs in Cincinnati because businesses there had little need for people who speak other languages, because they encounter foreigners so infrequently.
The Chamber and a host of other institutions put together a brochure, Cincinnati: A City of Immigrants, which they distribute at schools and other local institutions to remind people that the city has a long history of welcoming immigrants. But the bullying continues.
Andre Alva moved to Cincinnati when he was 13 because his mother, who is Mexican, worked for a multinational company that transferred her there. The bullying started almost as soon as he got to school, he told me. From middle school all the way through high school, he was constantly picked on. Kids tossed grapes at him in the cafeteria, put garbage on his doorstep, and chanted him out of a party where he had been told he would be able to DJ.
“They’d say, ‘You Mexican, quit stealing our jobs,’ to get a laugh,” he said. “People know that race humor is hurtful, so they use it.”
He never wanted to go back to school again, especially not college, where he figured he’d be bullied even more, but his mother made him apply and he got into Xavier on a scholarship. He found a community there, though he is taking some time off to work on his music and in a restaurant.
Foreign-born residents, as a percentage of the population, 2010
Brookings Institution / Datawrapper
Still, as more immigrants begin to call Cincinnati home, more local networks and supports are emerging. Mora-Mowry now volunteers at a group that brings together Latina women who have experienced domestic violence. Other organizations provide ESL, computer and GED classes, volunteer attorneys, food assistance, and daycare. A grocery chain, Jungle Jim’s, stocks groceries from other countries and is a popular shopping destination for immigrants. A Hindu temple serves as a community center for Indian migrants in the region.
Cincinnati Public Schools have launched a program that lets parents, students and employees use Rosetta Stone to learn languages online, including English. And some Cincinnati police officers take Spanish classes through a local nonprofit to be able to more effectively communicate. Mayor Cranley wants to launch a welcome center that will help new residents find a real-estate broker who speaks their language, refer them to other people from their homeland, and help them get acclimated to their new city. He also told me that police aren’t on the lookout for undocumented immigrants, and won’t ask people’s immigration status unless they have committed a crime.
It’s unclear whether these efforts will succeed in making Cincinnati a more welcoming place. The Majkas, who studied Dayton, found that while many challenges facing undocumented immigrants can only be addressed at the federal level, some can be addressed at the local level. Solutions include making local services more accessible to non-English speakers, and creating advocacy groups who can speak to the immigrants’ needs in a community. In Dayton, those groups talked to police about leaving undocumented immigrants alone, made referrals to health services and tutoring programs, and held cultural sensitivity training for service providers.
“Particularly in the absence of a pre-existing ethnic community, these organizations serve as important buffers against the overt anti-immigrant prejudice and racism expressed by some residents,” they wrote.
And of course, to some degree, immigrants in any new place, whether it be Cincinnati or Chicago, will have to take their own initiative to make the city work for them. But they may just be able to do that. Drive is, after all, what got them to the U.S. in the first place.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.