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Cities like Dayton are welcoming new immigrant residents

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

While some big U.S. cities like Chicago and New York are struggling with an influx of migrants, smaller communities in the Rust Belt have been working to establish themselves as immigrant friendly. Take Dayton, Ohio. The city's population of 135,000 people is half of what it was in the 1960s. But there's also been a rise in the number of immigrants who call the city home. Dayton has been trying to pave the way for new arrivals and their families to find their footing. Adriana Martinez-Smiley from member station WYSO reports.

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ADRIANA MARTINEZ-SMILEY, BYLINE: The smell of carne asada wafts through the air at El Gaban, a restaurant in Trotwood, a suburb right outside of Dayton. Mexican immigrant Jorge Ramirez bought the restaurant two years ago. But he's lived in Dayton for 10 years now. He says he came here for the reason a lot of immigrants do.

JORGE RAMIREZ: Looking for a best life. The violence in our country is too much, and every day is more.

MARTINEZ-SMILEY: Ramirez is not the only immigrant that traveled to Dayton looking for what he calls the best life. The numbers are small. About 6,000 immigrants live here. But the research group New American Economy says Dayton's immigrant population increased by 25% between 2014 and 2019. And Tom Thompson says there are plenty of reasons why. Thompson is the executive director of Valens Solutions. It set up a new legal clinic in the area to assist refugees and documented immigrants.

TOM THOMPSON: It's a great cost of living here as compared to other places in the United States coupled with the fact that there is lots of opportunity for employment and - up to and including employment for people and whose English is not their first language.

MARTINEZ-SMILEY: The clinic, called Immigrant Connection Dayton, provides a variety of services.

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THOMPSON: Helping people get their green cards, helping them apply for citizenship or temporary protected statuses. We've had some DACA cases as well.

MARTINEZ-SMILEY: There's also a long-running initiative called Welcome Dayton, designed to help integrate the new and growing migrant population. Coordinator Jeannette Horwitz says one step the initiative took was to set up a community ID for residents.

JEANNETTE HORWITZ: So not a driver's license and not a state ID or federal ID, but just proof of who you are and that you are, you know, living in this area, that you're part of this community.

MARTINEZ-SMILEY: The community ID is accepted by local police departments, health care providers and Dayton Public Schools. It's an effort Ramirez helps run, assisting with technology and registration.

RAMIREZ: When I see there the program, I love it. The first day I say, oh, I want be part of this because this is a grand - great help for the community.

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MARTINEZ-SMILEY: Dayton was the first city to be certified welcoming in 2017 by the national nonprofit Welcoming America. It hasn't had to grapple with the controversy over migrant buses. Its focus, though, has been on inviting immigrants to the city. And officials say the increase has been a boon for Dayton. Jorge Ramirez says he can't imagine living anywhere else. He says as an immigrant, being welcomed is the best feeling you can ask for.

For NPR News, this is Adriana Martinez-Smiley in Dayton.

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Adriana Martinez-Smiley