City of Immigrants: The growth of Cincinnati and other cities depends on immigration

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that looks at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

After years of a steadily declining population, the city of Cincinnati finally reversed that and grew, as the latest census showed. The uptick in population, after decades of decline, was a testament to renewed investment and interest in the urban core and its surrounding neighborhoods.

The untold story: Nearly all of that growth was due to immigrants moving here.

Over a four-year period, metro Cincinnati experienced the largest percentage of growth due to new immigrant residents [98%] than any other metro region in the country.  In other words, Cincinnati’s recent growth has come almost entirely from immigration, and more so than any other city in the country, including Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco.

“All the population gain is due to immigrants and refugees moving to the region,” says Bryan Wright, executive director of Cincinnati Compass. His organization advocates for the inclusion of the immigrant community, and is supported by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, University of Cincinnati, the city of Cincinnati and dozens of other organizations.
As Congress and state legislatures fail to update, reform, and address immigration laws and regulations in a comprehensive way, cities are where the future face of America is taking shape in real time. Immigrants in cities here and around the country are creating new lives and contributing to the life and vitality of their communities.

Cities are traditionally where immigrants tend to concentrate, bringing new perspectives, new skills, work ethic, and entrepreneurial spirit. Research has shown that immigration is essential to keep big metro areas growing and vibrant.  Census estimates just released in December reinforce that idea, as the nation’s small overall population growth from 2021 to 2022 (less than a half percent) was due to immigration.

“Net international migration … was the primary driver of growth,” the Census Bureau reported.

In metro Cincinnati, international communities have been growing – migrants from West Africa, Mali, and Burkina Faso, in Westwood; Guatemalans in East Price Hill and Covington; Bhutanese and Congolese in Mt. Airy and Boone County; Ethiopian and Somali in Florence; Burundi in North Fairmount.

Many have fled violence, repression, and protracted wars in their native countries and come here seeking stability, peace, and opportunity.

Genet Singh arrived from Ethiopia in 1991 as a 13-year-old, emigrating with her 10-year-old sister. They were reunited with their mother, who had emigrated to Northern Kentucky five years earlier.

She had a good life in Ethiopia, and was able to attend private school, as her family was well off, owning land and commercial properties in the country. But a political coup turned Ethiopia into a Marxist state; what was once private property was seized by the government in power and redistributed. Executions, assassinations, coups, and uprisings followed for years, and hundreds of thousands were killed in waves of violent political repression and ethnic conflict.

"Ethiopia is a beautiful country," she says. "But if you get stuck in the tribal wars, you can never move forward."

Arriving here, she enrolled at Withrow High School, learning English through its English as a Second Language program. She met her future husband there, Gurmukh Singh, who had immigrated from India. They both attended University of Cincinnati. After graduation, Genet ran a convenience store franchise in Finneytown for several years, while Gurmukh, trained in mechanical engineering, went to work for Milacron.

When the convenience store company went under, and Milacron restructured and downsized, the Singhs became entrepreneurs. Genet opened Elephant Walk restaurant in Clifton, serving Ethiopian and Northern Indian food. Gurmukh restored a full-service neighborhood grocery to Clifton’s Gaslight District, Clifton Market.

Elephant Walk on McMillan Avenue in University Heights.The Singhs have three children, a son studying business at University of Cincinnati; a daughter at UC studying environmental science, and their oldest daughter in her final year of law school at Harvard.      

Genet’s reasons for coming to the U.S. ring of the traditional American Dream: “Most of us come here looking for freedom, in a sense,” she says. “For the opportunity to make something happen. If you work hard and follow the rules, you can make something happen here.”

Connecting immigrants to community resources and neighbors is essential to creating opportunity, and it’s something cities are especially equipped to do, given their diverse populations, not-for-profit services, and philanthropic organizations.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center in December released a report, "Immigrants and Opportunity in American Cities," that included a list of the top U.S. metro areas where immigrants are thriving. Cincinnati ranked in the top 10 (10th) on a list that also included Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and San Jose, Calif.

“Some metropolitan areas far outperform others for immigrant well-being,” writes the author and director of the Bush Institute, J.H. Cullum Clark. “Places where immigrants are thriving include centers for technology and other knowledge-centric industries, college towns, and metros that have been intentional in helping immigrants succeed.”

The Bush Center rankings were based on a range of quality-of-life data, including educational attainment, household income, cost of living, and home values.

And success breeds success. A positive experience will bring more immigrant growth to a region. “Word of mouth travels far,” says Wright of Cincinnati Compass. “If you take care of someone’s aunt or uncle, they’re going to share that. If someone has a positive experience, they’re likely to tell their family and friends.”

In Erlanger, Florence, and Villa Hills, there’s a growing population of refugees from Myanmar, natives of the Chin state in that Southeast Asian country that have been under attack by the ruling military there.

Cung Thawng fled Myanmar in 2001. “There’s a big problem in our country with fighting,” he says. As a truck driver there, his vehicle was commandeered, and he was forced by the army to drive for days without food. Making a living under those conditions is difficult, if not impossible, and he fled, initially to Malaysia, then to the States, first to Virginia, and in 2020 to Northern Kentucky, where he joined his son and a Chin community that now numbers about 500.     

In 2021, he opened Thawng Grocery, an Asian grocery in Erlanger where one can purchase Asian vegetables, quail eggs, kimchi, squid, a crispy sort of fritter made from chickpeas called pe kat kyaw, and all manner of noodles.

Cung Thawng speaks at a Sunday service.He says he finds comfort here, with family, and through his church. Zion Chin Baptist Church in Florence is one of two Chin places of worship in Northern Kentucky. The other, Calvary Chin Baptist Church, meets at the Erlanger Baptist Church building. 

READ MORE: Refugees from war-torn Myanmar find a home in Northern Kentucky    

In Myanmar, the Chin is a Christian community in a nation that is 90% Buddhist. That may be one reason why they are persecuted there, but they are also fighting to restore democracy in a country that was taken over by its military. The day before we spoke, the military launched an air strike on a training camp of the Chin National Army, killing seven people.

Most recently, evacuees from Afghanistan have arrived in Northern Kentucky, as have refugees from the war in Ukraine, says Kristin Burgoyne.  She’s executive director of the Northern Kentucky office of RefugeeConnect, a not-for-profit dedicated to connecting refugees and other  immigrants to resources in this community to help them rebuild their lives. 

She’s been working with refugees and immigrants for about 15 years, first in Portland, Ore., then in Louisville, and since 2020 in this region. The pandemic changed everything about how it does business. Before the pandemic, Refugee Connect worked mainly with Cincinnati Public and other schools, engaging directly with students and their parents.  When school closed in March 2020, “we realized very quickly that a lot of the families that we were supporting would probably experience some gaps in communication, whether that was around school, around education in general, or even in information that they might not be receiving in their native language around COVID-19,” Burgoyne says.

Using grants from Greater Cincinnati Foundation, United Way, an Impact 100 grant of more than $100,000, and others, the group was able to hire “community navigators,” members of local immigrant communities, some of whom had already been leaders, who work with the newly arrived to help them get acclimated. RefugeeConnect  now employs nine part-time and three full-time community navigators.

“Their immigration journeys are as diverse as they are,” Burgoyne says of the navigators. “But one thing that they have in common is that at one time, they had to learn how to navigate all these systems here and they often had to do it on their own without support. So they joined our team because they want to help support their community and ensure that families are able to access different resources and services they qualify for but may not know about because nobody has ever talked to them about those services.”

They can then connect with employment opportunities, which is helpful as many of the nation's businesses deal with a labor shortage. "Job growth is outpacing population growth," Wright says. "This is a concern across the country."

Community organizations like RefugeeConnect and Cincinnati Compass can also help immigrants who have been educated and employed in their native countries gain licensing and accreditation to work in their fields here, particularly in sectors such as health care.

"We have an aging workforce," Wright says. "We don’t have the health care workforce to meet the needs of the retiring Boomer generation. There are people already here who have the skill sets to fill these jobs; it's matter of getting them licensed in their fields."

Providing these kinds of services to immigrants enable them to more quickly integrate into society, which benefits them and their communities.

As Burgoyne says, "Ultimately, our purpose is to ensure that these families are able to thrive in their new communities, because they're here to stay."

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.