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Immigrants emerge as growing economic force across Ohio

Somali business in Columbus. Photos | Ben French
Somali business in Columbus. Photos | Ben French
In the wake of the Arizona immigration law rancor and anti-immigration rhetoric, Cleveland civic activist and author Richard Herman finds himself shaking his head a lot these days.

An immigration attorney and author of a book touting immigrants' role in the new global economy, Herman says many people falling back on old memes is disappointing and short-sighted.

"People who say that immigrants are a drain on the economy or the old boogeyman, 'they're taking our jobs,' they're missing the point," says Herman. "In fact, if you look at the studies, cities with thriving immigrant populations... they're the cities that are thriving economically. Contrary to common perception, immigrants aren't a drain on the economy. They're what fuels growth."

With Ohio facing a near-stagnant population the state's population has increased only 1 percent this decade, far below the 7 percent national average and trailing 46 other states and the loss of traditional "rust belt" industrial jobs, the state is suffering from a void of human resources.

The answer to the statewide problem, Herman says, lies in the waves of foreign-born nationals looking to start a new life in the U.S.

Since 2000, immigrants have accounted for 72 percent of the Ohio's population growth, he points out. Most come from Latin America, followed closely by Asia, India and Africa. In the most recent census stats, those groups represent nearly 4 percent of Ohio residents 400,000 people.

Tom Hann, a senior buyer with Jungle Jim's, a specialty grocery store on Cincinnati's north side, says the most easily tracked impact of immigrants' consumer muscle has been in his business. Jungle Jim's, like Kroger's and other grocery stores throughout the state have seen huge increases in sales of international food products.

Where traditionally their biggest selling items have been Italian foods, Hann explains, "about three or four years ago, Mexican food overtook that and just keeps going."

He reports that Indian and Asian foods sales have also jumped. While some of the sales can be attributed to interest from cooking shows, he says, the majority is from immigrants.

"People come to this country, but they still want to have that little piece of home," he explains.

While immigrants are increasingly flexing fiscal muscle with their checkbooks, the real value of the foreign-born population as economic drivers is as business owners and entrepreneurs, according to a 2009 study of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the nation compiled by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank.

Among the study's findings: Over the past two decades, a large sector of immigrants came to the country to earn degrees at U.S. universities, and in 14 of the cities examined those white-collar professionals out-numbered the traditional idea of immigrants who work in lower-paying jobs like construction and maintenance.

It also pegged their economic impact at nearly twice as much as could be expected from their actual numbers.

Herman, whose 2009 book was titled "Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (And How They Will Save the American Worker)," often refers to the study when talking about the subject.

"There's a pretty large segment of the immigrant population today that is college-educated. That have their degrees in highly technical fields. That have the kind of jobs that we all agree we need as part of the 'new economy,'" he says. "They're also twice as likely as people born in America to start their own business, which brings more jobs. That's the message that isn't getting out yet."

Slowly, it is.

According to a recent Forbes magazine examination of start-ups between 1990-2005, immigrants were behind nearly a quarter of all public-venture backed companies created in the U.S., including 40 percent of America's high technology start-ups. New economy icons like Google (co-founder Sergey Brin is Russian) and Intel, which was founded by Hungarian-born Andy Grove, are prime examples.

In Ohio, private groups have taken the lead in fostering more growth of immigrant start-ups.

A little more than a year ago, several foreign-born business professionals and civic activists formed TiE Ohio, the first Buckeye chapter of the Tie Network, the world's largest organization for fostering entrepreneurship. Reka Barabas, who serves as its executive director, says the group, which has its roots set firmly in Sillicon Valley's Indian-American power base, was set up to fill the void left by state and local government inaction.

"There was a need, as we saw it, to help attract businesses from other countries to northeast Ohio and the whole state, but also to help people start their own businesses here," she says.

With a swell of international students at local universities, it was evident that real business opportunity was at hand.

"If you look at the technology, the applications that have come from just Chinese students, it's tripled over the last few years. That was done with very little effort to open the local business community to them," she says. 

Though the local TiE is only a year old, it can already point to successes like Sunflower Solutions, a Cleveland tech firm founded by a Miami University student that specializes in simple solar cells to bring reliable energy to developing countries.

Barabas also points out that the business relationship between the U.S. and its immigrant entrepreneurs is a two-way relationship.

"Of course, with their ties to their home countries and the international business community, it opens doors for foreign investment in Ohio as well," she adds.

Around the state, other private groups are also reaching out to foreign-born entrepreneurs.

With around 2,500 Indian families living in southwestern Ohio, leaders launched the Indian-American Chamber of Commerce earlier this year to help foster new, Indian-owned businesses. And in Columbus, where the Somalian community has ballooned to nearly 75,000 in central Ohio, Abdulkadir Aden, chairman of the Somali-American Chamber of Commerce reports that his group is thriving.

Founded in 2003, not only does the chamber include traditional businesses interested in doing business with such a large group of new Americans, it's also had a hand in helping Somalis start their own companies. Its membership roster is dotted by a wide range of businesses.

"We started the chamber to try to fill the gap between cultures, to make sure Somalis didn't feel like strangers in the community," Aden says. "It's what makes America America, having different people of different nationalities and cultures and backgrounds. Unless the community is open to everyone, unless everyone has the same opportunities, you're missing something valuable."
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