cleveland must get moving in the race to attract immigrants

Like many Midwestern industrial centers, the growth of Cleveland was made possible in large part by those from outside the region. Europeans migrated here during the mid-1800s, a trend that continued into the first decade of the 20th century. Later, African-Americans journeying from the south crossed the Mason-Dixon line to work in Cleveland's wartime industries. Non-European groups attracted by a burgeoning post-war economy came next, a panoply of fresh faces that included Mexicans, Chinese, Appalachians and more.

A variety of peoples still populate Cleveland, though nothing like the influx of earlier centuries. According to 2010 census figures, the city's population is just 5 percent foreign-born, less than half the nationwide average. This decade also witnessed the city’s population slip below the 400,000 threshold, a decline that activists believe can only be reversed by attracting newcomers, including immigrants.

Such is the mission of Global Cleveland, an economic development organization engaged in luring newcomers from the U.S. and abroad. The non-profit, which launched in 2011, supports a strategic, mass market approach to talent attraction that includes a public embrace of immigrants and refugees. In September and October, Global Cleveland hosted nine meetings (four with local African-American, Hispanic, Asian and faith-based leaders and five with Cleveland residents) asking the question, "What does it mean to be a global, welcoming community?"

At the meetings, which were co-hosted by the City of Cleveland's Community Relations Board and City Council, immigrants and refugees from Iraq, Sierra Leone and elsewhere shared their respective journeys with audience members. Later this month, Global Cleveland will bring volunteers from the earlier meetings together to hash out recommendations on newcomer attraction that will be then sent to city hall and the Board of Global Cleveland.
<span class="content-image-text">Joy Roller, president of Global Cleveland</span>Joy Roller, president of Global Cleveland 
The organization's recent efforts are just part of a rebooted, expanded plan to attract new residents both foreign and domestic and connect them to the region's opportunities, says Joy Roller, President of Global Cleveland. Earlier this year, the group debuted a web portal, with translation in 51 languages and information about jobs, housing, schools and existing ethnic neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio. "The site connects visitors to over 500 organizations and services to help people live and work here," Roller says.  

"The idea is to show newcomers that  the welcome sign is up and the door's open," she adds. "We want these people here."

Despite support from some members of the business community, Roller and non-native inhabitants interviewed by Fresh Water believe that more can be done to make Cleveland a welcoming, inclusive city. The task has not been easy, but that doesn't mean backing off from an assertive approach in bringing newcomers to town, they say.

Attraction through jobs

Jobs are perhaps the most obvious way for Cleveland to roll out the welcome mat, says Cesar Sandoval, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, who arrived here in 2001 to earn his MBA at Case Western Reserve University.

There are 70,000 open jobs in Northeast Ohio, a should-be magnet for new arrivals when combined with the region's friendly environment, robust higher education offerings and inexpensive real estate, says Sandoval, 39. However, Cleveland's affable atmosphere belies a provincial mindset for foreign-born college grads who want to stay but are unable to find companies to support them.

Aid could come through sponsorships or endorsements offered by employers interested in shepherding an immigrant through the complex visa application or work permit process. Otherwise, Cleveland will remain a way station for brainy college talent, Sandoval says, pointing to the 70 international students in his MBA class at Case, all of whom left town post-graduation.

"Nobody I knew could find sponsorships here," he says. "They moved to Chicago, L.A., New York or back to their home countries. I'm the last of the Mohicans."

A piece of Global Cleveland's outreach plan is connecting potential newbies to employers, says Roller. The agency now links with the OhioMeansJobs website and offers a LinkedIn page for year-round job posts. In addition, the organization has conducted a series of industry-specific virtual job fairs that match participants with companies from across Cleveland's business sectors. Job seekers are then given a chance to meet with employers online to explore work and sponsorship opportunities.

In July, Global Cleveland staff met with representatives of Cleveland's Polish community to discuss barriers Poles encountered when attempting to move here. Poles, unlike other Europeans, are required to obtain a visa before entering the country.  Difficulties encountered in attaining the visa encounges them to immigrate to other European nations rather than the U.S. A possible solution Global Cleveland found was to ask area Polish professionals to connect with their countrymen and find employment sponsorship for them at local hospitals and universities.
<span class="content-image-text">Cesar Sandoval of</span>Cesar Sandoval of 
There is no reason why this activity shouldn't be more widespread, says Sandoval, creator of, a searchable database of more than 10,000 ethnic restaurants, groceries, mechanics, schools, lawyers and doctors in Northeast Ohio. Too many local corporations are stuck in a loop where the cost and hassle of endorsing foreign-born talent outweighs potential benefits, unlike Chicago or New York where inherent talent is far more critical than the color of your passport.

"We are very diverse and yet there's too many people (outside Cleveland) who don't know it," says Sandoval. "The bottom line is getting the word out."

<span class="content-image-text">Jason Lin</span>Jason LinAs the region is still suffering the effects of job loss and population decline, it's surprising to Jason Lin that Cleveland isn't ramping up efforts to bring in more immigrants like him. Lin is the prototypical newcomer success story: Chinese by ethnicity, Vietnamese by birth, he and his family escaped Saigon in 1975 when the Viet Cong descended upon the city. He moved to Cleveland on June of that year with nothing, worked a number of jobs and found success in real estate, eventually opening a half dozen Asian-themed restaurants from Parma to Beachwood.

Lin also helped renovate Emperor's Palace, a bustling Chinese eatery located in Cleveland's old Chinatown district in the 2100 block of Rockwell Avenue. He's now a major stakeholder in the downtown cluster of storefronts that includes a vegetarian restaurant, a chamber of commerce and a Buddhist temple.

"I've always loved adventure and challenging myself," says Lin, 63. "When I came here there was no panic that I wasn't going to make it. I did what I had to do to survive."

Over the last few years, Lin also has been a vocal proponent of reaching out to mainland China to attract additional investment. He has business contacts there who would be interested in relocating if Cleveland offered tax incentives and other financial perks aimed at immigrants.

"Cleveland is a town you don't have to sink a lot of money into to start a business," Lin says. "If I can make it, others can, too."

Considering the huge investment dollars circulating overseas, the DIY businessman is concerned that immigration isn't a more active issue for Cleveland's political leaders. Investors need to believe they're wanted, and a delegation led by Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins to Zhongshan, China, last year was at least a step in that direction, he says. A return coalition from Zhongshan arrived in Cleveland in May to discuss development of a possible trade relationship. Lin knows of at least one investor from Zhongshan who moved here to open a downtown warehouse housing restaurant equipment.

He wants more of this activity, much more. "There's a chance to promote ourselves to China and gain their trust," he says.  

In 2013, Global Cleveland collaborated with the Welcoming America initiative, a national effort urging city governments to articulate an official salutation to immigrants, says Roller. The City of Cleveland has designated Global Cleveland as its response to such official pronouncements. 

According a 2012 study recently released by the Ewing Kauffman Marion Foundation, immigrants were almost twice as likely to start up new business as native-born Americans. With Cleveland hosting more international college students than ever before (Case's enrollment alone is 20 percent foreign-born), Global Cleveland is working with area colleges and universities to greet foreign students and other diligent newcomers who can help reverse our shrinking population trends, says Roller.

Global Cleveland is certainly making the push, with efforts including a proactive program advising non-native college students how to stay in Cleveland after graduation.

"Newcomers will often take the jobs native-born people won't take," says Roller. "For Cleveland to grow, we need to attract new people with new ideas."

Adding value to Cleveland

Valerie Henderson moved to Cleveland from Washington, D.C. four months ago. In that time, she has traveled to neighborhoods from east to west while her husband Welles serves a three-year surgical fellowship at University Hospital. Now settling into her home on Cleveland's border near Shaker Square and searching for work in her field of public health and emergency management, the 36-year-old mother of three is considering a long-term future on the North Coast.
<span class="content-image-text">Valerie Henderson</span>Valerie Henderson 
The Austria-born Henderson never anticipated moving to Cleveland during her five years in the nation's capital or Salt Lake City before that. She admits to having to look Cleveland up on a map when her husband told her about his fellowship opportunity. The "New Cleveland" narrative pushed by local marketing groups wasn't something she had even heard of before arriving. That's a problem.

"My sense is Cleveland only markets itself to those already interested in Cleveland," Henderson says. "There's not enough being done to reach out and make the city a destination."

Outreach could include a matchmaking program that aligns the needs of talent with a particular community's strengths, she says. For example, introducing medical students to neighborhood amenities around Cleveland's forthcoming health-tech corridor.

Interested parties can currently use the services of Global Cleveland "ambassador volunteers" to learn more about the best places to live, work, shop and eat, notes Roller. One idea coming from the recent series of Community Conversations is to develop weekly bus tours that take people to different international enclaves. Roller thinks this kind of activity can introduce Clevelanders to the rich contributions of the area's international residents, and can help Cleveland become a more welcoming, global community.

"Cleveland itself doesn't know how international this community is," Roller says. "We should be highlighting the wonderful contributions (newcomers) are bringing."

Now that Henderson's here, living in Cleveland during the throes of its resurgence has been invigorating. "It makes you want to commit to a place," she says. "We wanted to dig in quickly so it felt like we belonged."

Squire Patton Boggs associate Ahmed Abonamah  is excited by the changes he's seen in Cleveland since attending Case law school in the mid-2000s. Back then the area around Ford Drive and Euclid Avenue didn't have much besides a Starbucks and a falafel cafe. The current vibrancy, typified by MOCA Cleveland and the Uptown development, reflects just how much pockets of Cleveland are changing.

Growing neighborhoods need to be accessible for immigrants, refugees and natives alike, says Abonamah, 32, a Chicago native who grew up in Akron and returned to Cleveland in 2009 after a year in Boston. Being a smaller community, Cleveland is an easier city to get involved with on a professional and volunteer basis, he notes. The attorney, whose father came to the states from Benghazi, Libya in the early 70s, helped found the Cleveland Coalition, a civic organization.

Millennials and other younger professionals, foreign-born or not, want to feel like they're having an impact on city affairs, Abonamah says. The opportunity for involvement can be its own attractor.

"People care about the direction of Cleveland," says Abonamah. "It's important to have those who want to live in an authentic urban setting and are willing to do the work to keep it up."

Now that Cleveland is gaining national attention, word-of-mouth communication may be its most powerful tool in luring newcomers, says Roller. Drawing dynamic new brainpower can be a precursor for the great things the city has been working toward these last few years.

"That's the good news of the story," says Roller. "We have a product to sell, we just need to connect people to it."

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.