Butler County’s proximity to Cincinnati and Dayton — two southwest Ohio cities billing themselves as “immigrant friendly” — could be a blessing and a curse, local officials say.
While Cincinnati and Dayton are both home to Democratic mayors, Butler County is the land of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, the country’s highest-ranking Republican, and Sheriff Richard K. Jones, a local lawman whose controversial comments on immigration have made national headlines.
Jones has been burning up the airwaves, appearing on national conservative television and radio talk shows to discuss illegal immigrants in Butler County. The sheriff has maintain a strong stance on securing the nation’s border and stopping people from coming across illegally. He told the Journal-News that he has no problem with documented visitors, just illegal ones.
“Hell, my ancestors come from other countries,” Jones said. “When they came over on the Mayflower, they came over here to a country to make a better life, and they were from other countries. I’ve never been against legal immigration, and I’ve always said we need more people coming in, but we must secure the borders.”
Five percent of Butler County’s 371,272 residents — about 18,500 — are estimated foreign-born, according to the latest Census data. Nearly 7 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the data.
The sheriff’s comments incited community members to organize a protest Thursday morning outside his office in Hamilton. Protesters said they were “outraged” by his attempts to collect payment from the Mexican government for illegal immigrants housed in his jail awaiting deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Yeah, they enter this country illegally, it’s breaking the law,” said Jennifer Young, who organized the protest on Facebook. “But to rip families apart… I don’t believe he sees them as human beings.”
Other area residents lauded Jones for his comments.
“He’s just doing his job,” said a Hamilton resident who wished to remain anonymous. “If I break the law and somebody helps me out, they can also be arrested for aiding and abetting a criminal. Why isn’t the same law applied to people that are here illegally and people helping them out?”
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley launched a new task force a couple of weeks ago on the issue. The goal is to make Cincinnati the most immigrant-friendly city in the country. Attracting more foreign-born people to live, work and invest here makes the region more competitive. And it draws new sources of capital, innovation, productivity and excitement, Cranley said.
Dayton adopted the initiative in 2011, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley stirred controversy when she said Dayton was willing to be a destination if Congress approves funding to shelter the more than 57,000 minors, many unaccompanied, who have arrived since October mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Two sites in the city, a former Navy Reserve facility and a vacant former distribution warehouse property, have been offered as possible shelters.
Jones said those children should be sent back home.
“We need to keep (the kids) in the countries where they come from,” he said. “We need to send aide and we need to get them back to their parents….going over here is not a good thing for them, just the trip over here is dangerous.”
Dayton resident Jim Weber, 64, said that the United States should be focusing on its own citizens first.
“We have homeless veterans here; they should be in these facilities,” he said.
Butler County Commissioner T.C. Rogers has started researching what it would cost the county if the federal government send “a bus load of kids” here. He hasn’t arrived at that figure yet, but doesn’t believe inviting immigrants in would help the local economy, because he believes many of them wire their money home to their families abroad.
“We got a lot of money going out of here,” he said.
While many local officials say immigrants who come here should be welcomed with open arms, there is the school of thought that legal immigrants could be a magnet for illegals.
Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said people shouldn’t prejudice others just because people of the same race might be here illegally.
“I am not going to denigrate anybody who is doing something lawfully with the prospect that their mere presence is going to attract somebody who is doing something illegally,” he said
Shelly Jarrett Bromberg is an associate professor for Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University who specializes in immigration in the United States and abroad. She said that there is much more to the conversation than meets the eye, and that Rust Belt cities could profit from drawing legal immigrants.
“If you look at what’s happened (in Hamilton) over the last 10 years, there’s fewer people here than there were before,” she said. “Whereas, Dayton is thriving.” Bromberg taught at Miami University Hamilton for nine years before moving to the Oxford campus.
Bromberg added that when Dayton and Cincinnati talk about becoming “sanctuary cities” for refugee children, that doesn’t mean that city funds would foot the bill.
“A lot of the funding is private money, Catholic charities and organizations saying that they will accept and take care of these children,” she said. “If we’re talking about the influx of children, those kids are not going to qualify until they achieve refugee status.”
The Rev. Michael Pucke has been the pastor at St. Julie Billiart’s Church at 224 Dayton St. in Hamilton for nine years. He explained the role that Catholic Charities USA plays in finding shelter and resources for refugee children.
“If there is a need for temporary housing for a child or a family, that would come to us through them,” he said.
He said that the question should not be whether there is a benefit to the county to receiving refugee children in the area, but what is the responsibility to the children.
“The violence (causing the children to flee) arises from drug trafficking and the market for drugs here in the United States, and so there is a correlation between our behavior and the behavior of these children,” he said. “And so our responsibility to do something for these children here and now arises from that.”
He added that protecting the life and dignity of any human person is a major part of his life as a Roman Catholic. When it comes to the sheriff’s comments, “it’s not helpful to the question of what to do with (the children) to be talking about anybody else but them.”
Butler County Administrator Charlie Young said he can see pluses and minuses to a new population influx.
“Legal immigrants, certainly it’s a work force and they’re highly motivated,” he said. “The downside is if they put additional pressures on social programs. “
Commissioner Don Dixon said he can see how attracting legal immigrants is a way to build a prosperous community.
“If they fit in to fill a position that has a shortage of those types of employees or skill sets, yeah, I see how it very well could be filled with legal immigrants,” he said. “ I don’t see it being any obstacle at all in region development.”