LIMA — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has touted himself as the candidate for law and order. For him, that philosophy extends to immigration laws, with pledges to remove immigrants who have entered the country illegally.
Lima business owner Tracie Sanchez is in full agreement with this, maintaining that law enforcement needs to have the backing to ensure immigration laws already on the books are enforced.
“We definitely need immigration policies, and I think [Trump’s] right on target in terms of enforcement of the laws,” she said. “If they’ve been here illegally, they need to get legal status.”
Donald Trump’s biggest applause line at rallies in Ohio continues to be the promise: “Don’t worry, we’re going to build a wall.”
It’s a line that oddly resonates in a state where the experience with immigration is far different from most of the country.
Ohio has only about a third the national average when it comes to the percentage — 4 percent — of foreign-born people living here. The state ranks 12th from the bottom. And of that tiny group of immigrants, fewer than one in five is here without the necessary papers.
Moreover, support for Trump is strongest in the counties where immigrants are least likely to be found — if not leaving.
Polling of Ohioans for the Your Vote Ohio project shows an odd disconnect on the issue. Asked in an open-ended question to name the top issues in 2016, immigration doesn’t make the top 10.
But when asked to define the reasons they like either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, it’s his stand on immigration that helps Ohioans define Trump as a good candidate.
And in a state that is always pivotal to winning the presidential election, then, Trump has found ways to make immigration critical to dealing with the most important issues on Ohioans’ minds, among them the economy and terrorism.
While there are many in Lima who support stricter immigration policies, both Teniya Hicks, 20, and Jaquala Cobb, 28, are more open to the presence of immigrants in their community. For Hicks, the question of those entering the United States illegally should focus on motivations, not just the letter of the law.
“We have to ask why,” she said. “What made them come here? A lot of times, it’s abuse, poverty. Something forced them to come here, legally or illegally.”
Cobb’s only experience with immigrants was during her studies at the University of Northwestern Ohio. Most returned to their own countries after completing their degrees. As for those coming illegally and staying, she believes that “they’re just coming here for work, to strive to do better.”
Linda Riley grew up near Steubenville and has been to Trump rallies on both sides of the Ohio River — in communities battered by the collapse of steel and coal and major population losses. Illegal immigration and the economy are her biggest issues and she says they’re intertwined.
“They’re taking jobs away from citizens. And everybody likes to say that they’ll take jobs that other people won’t. Well, how do we know that? Let’s get them out of here and we’ll see.”
But for immigrant families, many in pockets in Cuyahoga, Lake and Franklin counties, the debate about their role in the community is not hypothetical.
Elizabeth Perez is a U.S. military veteran — military service is something immigrants are as likely to do as native-born Americans — and her husband, Marcos, was deported for not being in the country with proper documents. At a town hall in Cleveland in March, she pressed Hillary Clinton on how she would change policy and practice to allow Marcos to return to the U.S. from Mexico.
“Along with my husband, there have been over 2 million people deported since 2010. And almost a quarter of them are parents of U.S. citizen children. That’s … moms and dads just like my husband, up and gone out of their children’s lives,” she said.
Between Riley and Perez are a lot of people with mixed feelings — the kind reflected in a recent national poll by Pew Research that found voters about evenly split over whether border enforcement or a pathway to citizenship should be the nation’s priority.
The largest group said they’re of equal concern.
Tony Stutz, a retired teacher in the small Wayne County town of Dalton, works part-time at the hardware store. He pauses while cutting pipe to answer a big question: What to do with the 11 million people in the U.S. who are here illegally?
“We all came here because of a reason of persecution, suffering, looking for a better life. My feeling is that most of these people are searching for the same thing. If they’re here for an alternative motive I would go along with maybe sending them back. But for the most part, if they’re a contributing part of society like all of us should be, that’s the whole goal of the thing.”
Stutz’s personal experience with immigrants began when Mennonite missionaries sponsored families from Laos resettling here. And his experience may be closer to Ohio’s immigration reality than most people realize.
Who are Ohio’s immigrants?
The census shows more than a third of Ohio’s immigrants came from Asia; Latin America doesn’t even rank second as a region of origin. Again, that defines Ohio’s experience as much different from the nation.
When it comes to unauthorized immigrants, Latin America moves up to a strong No. 1. But Asia still accounts for about a quarter, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute.
Ohio’s immigrants also tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than the immigrant population nationally and Ohioans in general. More than 20 percent of foreign-born residents have a bachelor’s degree compared with less than 16 percent of native Ohioans. Even among immigrants without documents, 37 percent have at least some college.
Average earnings are about 18 percent higher than native Ohioans.
As for those who are here without documents, “anywhere from 45 to 50 percent are so-called visa over-stayers, the people who had legitimate visas when they arrived and then they overstayed for one reason or another,” said Migration Policy Institute Senior Analyst Jeanna Batalova.
That includes visas for students from Asian countries attracted to Ohio’s universities, and visas to visit families.
And “it’s much more expensive to fly from Asia, from Africa, so only people with a certain level of means would be able to do that.”
Those two factors — here for college and the means to afford extensive travel — help explain the higher education and incomes for Ohio’s immigrants, she said.
The economic impact
Regardless of their origin, lots of Ohioans believe immigrants take jobs and keep wages low for native-born Americans.
Chris Howard is among them. He’s 52, grew up in East Cleveland and is training for a data-entry job after massive layoffs at the automotive parts plant where he worked for years.
He maintains a porous border “gives the immigrants a chance to work for less money and … people tend to hire them first.”
Census data show that immigrants are indeed less likely to be jobless than native Ohioans — by a little more than a percentage point. And they’re far more likely to have jobs in private businesses rather than government.
Research by George Borjas — a Harvard economist cited by groups trying to slow immigration — validates Howard. It says immigrants boost the U.S. economy by $1.6 trillion a year, but most of that goes to the immigrants themselves and suppresses wages for native-born workers.
Other studies challenge Borjas’ conclusions.
The Partnership for a New American Economy is a bipartisan group advocating for a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
It maintains that immigrants are job creators, too; more than 120,000 Ohioans work for small- and medium-sized firms owned by immigrants.
The partnership also took a deeper look recently at Akron — one of the Midwest cities that embraces immigrants as hope for a rust-belt turnaround. It found pluses when it came to population, taxes, home ownership, property values and entrepreneurship.
Director Jeremy Robbins, maintains that even low-skill immigrants boost the economy.
“They create jobs. Now, are there some people where there is tension? We know there are a lot of Americans who are hurting, who need better employment, who need work. But the answer isn’t to close our borders. The answer is to be smarter about our immigration system.”
Finding reasons for resentment
Ohio’s foreign-born population is clustered largely around its big cities. Franklin County has the most and has been growing the fastest. But mid-sized counties like Summit and Montgomery have seen growth, too.
Lagging far behind is the region along the Ohio River, which continues to lead Ohio in unemployment. It’s in counties like those that Trump prevailed over Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the March primary election.
Reanne Frank, a demographer at Ohio State University, says the high unemployment creates a familiar pattern.
Immigrants “have very little to do with the issues that these communities are facing. They’re not even there. But some of these communities are going through transformations and some people are being left behind. And these kinds of moments are when immigration as a scapegoat gains a certain amount of traction.”
Madhu Sharma is director of immigrant services at the International Institute of Akron. An attorney and an immigrant herself, she believes immigration strengthens a community in many ways.
But she thinks she understands why others hesitate.
“It’s the same fear that makes people come to our borders … this fear of being cut off from resources of being able to take care of the people we love.”
Reach Craig Kelly at 567-242-0390 or on Twitter @Lima_CKelly.