A photo of downtown Youngstown, Ohio
A "poster child" for deindustrialization, Youngstown, Ohio, faces difficult economic decisions. Brian Snyder/Reuters

A Rust Belt City Wrestles With Fear, Immigration, and its Future

A year after the deportation of a local businessman, Youngstown, Ohio, faces a question: Can it welcome immigrants and support the federal detention center that incarcerates them?

One year ago, on January 29, 2018, Fidaa Musleh got an unexpected call from her husband, Amer Othman Adi. He was calling from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where he was boarding a flight to Jordan. After a three-decade battle to fend off deportation and a couple of weeks in detention at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) near his adopted hometown of Youngstown, Amer was being deported. He was calling his wife to say goodbye.

Adi’s long fight to stay in America exemplifies the tenacity of many immigrants. He’d entered the U.S. on a visa in 1979 at age 19. A decade later, after his marriage to an American woman ended and he had remarried, the Immigration and Naturalization Service charged Adi with fraud and revoked his green card. He fought deportation through legal means, but in 2007, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) ordered him deported.

While Adi was fighting those decisions, he started a family and opened several businesses in downtown Youngstown, including the popular Downtown Circle convenience store, which also housed a Middle Eastern deli. That business was one of several successful new shops and restaurants that sparked a business renaissance in the center of this famously blighted city. “I opened a business here when no one else wanted to,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At the time of his deportation, Adi employed about 60 people.

Amer Othman Adi in Amman, Jordan, shortly after his deportation last January. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

When he was taken into custody early in 2017, local leaders and activists organized protests and vigils to protest his deportation, and Adi’s case because a cause célèbre among foes of President Trump’s immigration policies. The Vindicator, the local newspaper, complained that Adi had not been given a chance to argue his case in court. Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents the Youngstown area, drafted a “private bill” in an effort to protect Adi, citing his contributions to the local economy. “Amer was a pillar of the community and brought commerce to a downtown that craved investment,” Ryan said in a statement. “He hired members of our community. He paid taxes. He did everything right.” All to no avail.

But while many in Youngstown fumed over Adi’s treatment, hundreds of other undocumented immigrants also awaited deportation at the NEOCC, the private prison where he was last held. Some of those who were most vocal in protesting Adi’s deportation also supported using the facility for immigrant detention, because of the jobs and taxes it provides.

NEOCC has had a troubled history, including the escape of six prisoners during the summer of 1998. A few years later, the prison lost its contracts with state and local governments (in part, some suggest, because its guards had formed a union). In 2004, with support from local legislators and business leaders, the NEOCC landed a several new contracts; a decade later, the prison population began to shrink again, leading to new layoffs.

But the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promised a brighter future for the “vastly underused” facility, as The Vindicator cheerfully reported in December of that year. In January 2017, Trump signed an executive order to increase deportations, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided to use private prisons to house detainees. Within days, ICE announced a four-year extension of its contract with CoreCivic, which owns the NEOCC. A Vindicator editorial touted several “benefits” of the policy, including “an increased inmate population, heightened employment and a much-needed revenue boost to the city’s strained coffers.” Youngstown’s then-mayor, John McNally, welcomed the announcement that the facility would now house nearly 600 immigration detainees, calling this “a very positive step for the city and for our income tax dollars.” As the Vindicator noted, the number of people being detained would likely increase—more jobs and tax revenue for the city.

Those jobs are a key dividend, even though private prisons generally pay their workers about $7,000 less than correctional officers at public prisons. NEOCC pays $15.32 an hour for correctional officers—about the average hourly wage for Youngstown jobs. Its annual payroll in 2013 (the most recent data available is from before the latest expansion) was $21.7 million, and the facility contributed $4.3 million in property taxes, utilities, and local good and services.

The private prison also helps Youngstown gain state and federal revenue because the U.S. Census Bureau considers prisoners—even undocumented immigrants—to be residents. The incarcerated can’t vote, but they do help secure funding for highways, schools, healthcare facilities, and economic development programs. No wonder local leaders haven’t voiced many objections over the detention of hundreds at NEOCC.

Yet there’s an irony to this story, as the community’s full-throated support for both Adi and the private prison that held him suggests. Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley has a long history of immigration and migration. The city’s residents are the children and grandchildren of people who came here in the 20th century—most from Southern and Eastern Europe, but also from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Middle East—to work in the area’s steel industry. For many, Adi’s story echoes their own families’ histories, and they identify with and admire his hard work, his personal success, and his contributions to the local economy.

But the immigrants being detained at NEOCC—most of whom hail from the Middle East and Latin America and had been living in other parts of the U.S.—seemed not to inspire such feelings. While Adi’s story and his contributions to the local economy have been highly visible, other immigrants in the Youngstown area are usually ignored, even though their work is just as crucial to the region’s businesses. While the raid last summer on the Fresh Mark meat processing plant drew some attention locally, the Latin American staff many area restaurants and workers at the small farms that ring the city have drawn little notice here. Nor have the Middle Eastern immigrants who work in a variety of small businesses in the area. They, like Adi, have worked hard, paid taxes, and put down roots. But without green cards or permanent residency, they remain invisible and vulnerable.

After a June ICE raid detained 146 workers at Fresh Mark, a few members of local churches protested across the street from NEOCC. But most local media coverage of CoreCivic focuses only on the jobs and tax revenue they provide, not the human beings whose detention fuels those economic benefits.

Indeed, many in this struggling community resent immigrants, whom they blame for “stealing” local jobs or getting benefits that aren’t available to Americans. President Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, including his promised border wall, earned him significant support here in 2016.

In Youngstown as in other Rust Belt communities, this resentment is largely rooted in economics. Four decades after its steel mills began to close, the community’s declining population, deteriorating infrastructure, and stubborn joblessness has long been a poster child for deindustrialization, as we wrote in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown. In 2010, the Census Bureau identified Youngstown as “America’s Fastest Shrinking City,” and employment rates have remained low. Both the protests over Adi’s deportation and the support for NEOCC’s contract with ICE are fed by the same source—the city’s desperate need for employment opportunities and new investment.

Individuals and cities can both be vulnerable to external forces, as Youngstown knows too well. In November, General Motors announced its intentions to close its Lordstown assembly plant, putting another 1,500 people out of work and likely setting up this community for further decline. Also this fall, Adi’s downtown store was sold. His wife, Fidaa, who is an American citizen, moved to Jordan to join her husband. Like so many other Youngstown residents, for her finding a better future meant choosing to leave.

Meanwhile, as President Trump stokes immigrant resentment in his continuing battle to build a border wall, the new mayor of Youngstown said that the city would benefit from more immigrants. That’s very true, but would they be welcome? The answer may depend on whether they manage to succeed in following Adi’s model and create new businesses, or if they remain trapped in the largely invisible ranks of low-wage workers.

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