DAYTON, Ohio – There are concerns over President Donald Trump's tough talk and policies on immigration in an Ohio city that's linked its future to attracting and keeping foreign-born residents.
The "Welcome Dayton" initiative has helped halt population decline, add skilled workers, and revitalize rundown neighborhoods in a Rust Belt city that was reeling from the recession. Officially adopted in 2011, the "immigrant-friendly city" plan offers assistance with English and translations, accessing government and social services and starting businesses.
The city celebrates diversity with cultural events such as a mini-World Cup soccer tournament and arts festivals, but Trump policies he says are needed for national security have made some feel more wary than welcome.
"People are freaking out," said Ramadan Alhaddad, a Libya-born professional interpreter. He said even people with legal status have become "afraid to venture out; they're just worried."
Alhaddad, at a recent International Women's Day celebration in downtown Dayton, said some people scrubbed plans to come because they were concerned about federal immigration agents showing up. Alhaddad said he has put off his own plans to visit his ailing mother in his homeland because even though he is a U.S. citizen, he wants to avoid any hassles.
He was among several foreign-born residents in Dayton who said they or people they know are changing travel and even immigration plans. The Trump administration is appealing an order Wednesday by a federal judge in Hawaii extending his temporary block of provisions to suspend new visas for six Muslim-majority countries and halt the U.S. refugee program.
Cuban-born attorney Isabel Suarez said people here from various Latin American countries voice "an increase in nervousness" about their futures. Ismail Ozcan, who leads the Turkish American Society of Ohio in Dayton, said: "People are saying 'Should I come here or go to Canada instead?'"
Melissa Bertolo, who coordinates Welcome Dayton, said it has been increasing information and legal outreach in response to fear and uncertainty.
"Unfortunately, you have a lot of rumors," she said. Such reactions among immigrants are "something that requires continued attention. I think we have made a lot of progress in our community, but it's not something you can take for granted."
Dayton was recognized by the Obama administration as a leader among several U.S. cities adopting "welcoming" policies. Dayton had been declining after plants and businesses closed or moved, including the departure to Georgia of NCR, the maker of automated tellers and other business machines that began in Dayton in the 19th century as National Cash Register.
Dayton leaders saw that Middle Eastern, African, Latino and other immigrant groups were rehabbing deteriorated properties, starting new businesses and adding workers at education and job skill levels higher than the overall workforce averages. They took steps reducing language and cultural barriers, as a welcoming policy that generated little local opposition.
"It's really become part of the city's identity," said Jamie Longazel, a University of Dayton professor who co-authored a recent assessment of Welcome Dayton. "It's something we do here."
Dayton Chamber of Commerce official Stephanie Precht said immigrants have had a "significant impact," particularly in the northern Dayton area where once-vacant properties have become neatly maintained homes and thriving businesses.
"They take nuisance properties and turn them into villas," said Libya-born Ismael Gula, who plans to build a center with shopping, services and a mosque on rundown property.
After falling by nearly half from the 262,300 residents in 1960, Dayton's population is leveling off with the help of a foreign-born influx that now comprises some 5 percent of the population and added nearly 2,500 people from 2009-2013, according to census figured.
But Trump administration policies are expected to cut the number of new refugee and immigrant families coming to Dayton. Trump last year became the first Republican to carry Dayton-based Montgomery County since 1988 and had strong support in traditionally Republican neighboring counties as many voters applauded his immigrant crackdown plans such as building a border wall. That has some locals wondering if their leaders will back off the welcoming policy under political pressure.
Democratic Mayor Nan Whaley, unopposed for re-election this year, has offered reassurances, telling those for whom "the future feels uncertain" that Dayton remains dedicated to "embracing all those who choose to live here."
Mohamed Al-Hamdani, an Iraqi-born health care executive whose family came here in 1992 after spending 18 months in a refugee camp, has become active in speaking out against the Trump policies. Al-Hamdani, who spent four years as a linguist and cultural trainer for U.S. soldiers and Marines headed to Iraq duty, said most immigrants put a lot of effort into reaching the United States and aren't looking for trouble.
"When they get here, they appreciate it and want to work hard," said Al-Hamdani. "Immigrants are a good investment for any city."
Associated Press photographer John Minchillo contributed to this report.
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