Cleveland's Mayor delivered a strange message during his State of the City interview last week. I was a little surprised more people didn't pick up on the civic dissonance of His Honor Frank Jackson's approach to immigration. We should keep in mind that city leaders have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars to this point into a pro-immigration program in recent years. So when, in response to a question from the audience at The City Club of Cleveland wondering if Cleveland could follow the lead of Philadelphia and Detroit in welcoming immigrants from abroad, the mayor replied, "I believe in taking care of your own," I did a double take.

This is the same Mayor who spoke at the founding of Global Cleveland, the pro-immigration project founded with $1 million in social investment by our local banksphilanthropy, and other private sector partners. This is the same Mayor who is descended from Italian immigrants and spoke at the dedication of a statue of Dante Alighieri at the Italian Cultural Gardens. This is the Mayor of a city built by immigrants.

Like the Mayor, so many of us have a personal connection to the city's immigrant past. The family I married into is a good example--a mix of Sicilian, Italian and Irish heritage, all arrived in Cleveland in the early 20th century. Many of us have a connection like this to Cleveland's history, but it doesn't seem to matter. In the almost eight years I've lived here, I've often been struck by the strangely frosty relationship with foreign newcomers. Last decade, there was a series of incidents regarding Muslim Somali taxi drivers who seemed to find no end to tension with management at Cleveland Hopkins airport. Last week, there was the Mayor's comments. The important stuff comes 40 minutes in. 

Watch State of the City 2013 on PBS. See more from The City Club Forum.

What's going on here?

There is a perception out there that more people coming here will create more competition for existing jobs, which can only be a bad thing in a region that's struggled with high unemployment in recent decades. And, of course, the unemployment levels are disproportionately high among minority groups. Here's the thing: Immigration isn't bad for anybody. You don't have to take my word for it.

Policy Bridge is our local, homegrown, African American think tank. Three years ago they published a study making the case for immigration. It's worth re-reading. Report writers Greg Brown and Randell McShepard come to the conclusion that encouraging immigration just makes good economic sense. Immigrants, after all, contribute as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs and taxpayers. In other words, the economy isn't a zero sum game. More people might mean a bit more competition for that one job, but there will also be more jobs, more businesses, and more people paying taxes. In the end, "aggressive and welcoming immigration strategies may provide the fuel needed to kick-start Northeast Ohio’s economic engine into high gear. An obvious first step is simply to encourage and support immigration successes that are already occurring in the region."

The Mayor's reasoning, though, seems to run counter to that. To paraphrase what he said, take care of your own first, improve the economy for people here and that will attract more immigrants. Let's put aside the fact that he's contradicting what he said two years ago. His is a nice idea, a long term play, but while we struggle to do that in Northeast Ohio our peer cities are improving their own economies by simply opening the doors and welcoming people who want a great place to live right now.

There's something else I need to say about anti-immigrant philosophy. It's un-American. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to associate anti-immigrant thinking as being related to the worst parts of our collective history (Red Scare, detainments, that kind of thing). Change is hard, because we don't know where it will end up, but fear of immigrants is just another form of xenophobia, and little good tends to come from that. Some of my thinking on this is informed by a couple of books by British Canadian author Doug Saunders. His latest book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide compares all the anti-Muslim rhetoric we've been hearing lately with the anti-semitic and anti-papist rhetoric of the early 20th century. His first book is worth the read, too. Arrival City explains why immigration works so well when it works well. He's coming to Cleveland in April. You're invited.

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