Matt Joseph would not be serving his fourth term as the city commissioner of Dayton, Ohio if many decades ago his grandmother had not made a particular demand. She told her boyfriend—Matt’s future grandfather—that she would marry only if he agreed to leave their native Lebanon for America.
“When I heard that story, I was like ‘Way to go Grandma!’” Joseph says. This is how the Joseph family came to lay down roots in Dayton, a city that is not just Joseph’s home but the locus of his political career. Today, he and his team are successfully revitalizing a city that has long been in decline. They’re accomplishing this by attracting new, ambitious residents—many of them immigrants like his own grandparents, who are eager for a new start.
You can’t mistreat people. If immigrants live in the city, they’re ours, no matter what kind of visa or status they have.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Early in his career, Joseph watched Dayton’s manufacturing jobs disappear. “Downtown was getting quieter and quieter,” he says. Meanwhile, life was difficult for the city’s Hispanic community. “Those were dark days. There was a lot of paranoia, a lot of harassment.” There was also a lot of crime perpetrated against the city’s Hispanic immigrants, but people were afraid to alert the police, lest attention from law enforcement put undocumented members of the community at risk for deportation. Joseph desperately wanted to turn things around. Getting his colleagues in city government on board required persistence. “Supporting immigration action was a hard sell—the third rail,” he says.
People came around for two reasons. First, they believed it was the ethical thing to do. Joseph says his colleagues understood that “You can’t mistreat people. If immigrants live in the city, they’re ours, no matter what kind of visa or status they have.” But as important to his colleagues were the practical implications of rethinking the city’s approach to immigration policy. A more welcoming Dayton, meant more people moving into the city. And it meant an immigrant community that was proudly engaged in civic life—from entrepreneurship to safety initiatives—because it didn’t fear visibility.
“We saw that increased immigration would help the health of the city,” Joseph says. “We’ve been promoting that attitude for a long time, and it stuck.”
Today, the head of the city’s human relations council, the city manager, and the mayor are fully supportive of Joseph’s initiatives. The Welcome Dayton program, launched by the city in 2011, provides immigrants in the city with support gaining professional licensing, opening businesses, and obtaining citizenship—all measures that can help them contribute more to the local economy. Indeed, since Welcome Dayton launched, immigrants have started scores of new businesses and also purchased thousands of once-vacant homes. Dayton has also been recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of the country’s seven most enterprising cities. “The confidence that new arrivals have now means they’re taking part in activities that have created the blossoming of a civil society that we haven’t seen in Dayton for a long time,” Joseph says. Immigration reform, he says, won’t just further help Dayton’s economic prospects, but struggling American cities around the nation too.