As Lima debates immigrants, Springfield could provide example

LIMA — Lima residents want answers.

Councilman Derry Glenn said he is working hard to deliver them after receiving questions at the forum he organized Thursday that saw residents voicing their frustrations with the city and members of the growing Lima Haitian community.

“I’m not trying to tell people how to accept people or anything, but I am trying to get some education and let everyone know,” he said after Monday night’s city council meeting. “That’s all they really want. They just want us to give them some answers.”

Lima Mayor Sharetta Smith recently shared a five-point plan for the city to respond to concerns ranging from unsafe housing conditions to improved language services for the city’s government.

Smith said she has also talked with mayors across Ohio cities where the population of recent Haitian immigrants has similarly grown.

The most significant of these cities might be Springfield, where St. Vincent de Paul volunteer Casey Rollins said the community started welcoming new neighbors as early as 2016 and eventually saw its Haitian community grow to 6,500.

Rollins said Springfield’s population had been dwindling before the population surge.

“Immigrants have always been known to be the backbone of every society,” she said. “We used to be over 115,000 and went down to 57,000 people before we added these folks. I haven’t done the numbers recently, but I remember thinking that 5 percent of our population is now Haitian.”

Rollins said as someone who first worked to provide charity to Haitian residents, Springfield has seemingly successfully integrated its Haitian population into the seams of the community.

But it was not easy.

“We take typical care for anyone regardless of their status, orientation or anything and that can present unique challenges,” she said.

The people St. Vincent de Paul was serving were dealing with poor housing, public scrutiny, harassment and accusations of criminal activity.

“A huge challenge that we experienced was a horrible tragedy when a Haitian resident accidentally struck a school bus head-on, resulting in the death of a child,” Rollins said. “It was the most awful tragedy for everyone, particularly the boy’s parents. They actually stepped up and begged people to stop using their child for vitriol directed at the community.”

And before the immigrants could even begin their lives in Springfield, Rollins said she realized what they needed was not charity, but legal assistance to be allowed to work and find jobs.

“If these folks aren’t ever allowed to work, which is really all they want to do, they are going to become like a secondary welfare class,” she said.

Katie Kersh, co-manager of the Dayton office for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s immigration practice, said her office has been assisting with the Springfield Haitian population.

“We have hosted asylum clinics, employment authorization clinics and a lot of “know your rights” work,” she said. “We try to work in communities as much as we can to let them drive their advocacy. So we have been assisting in Springfield.”

Kersh said the vast majority of Haitian immigrants in the Springfield area entered through the CBP One App, which is a free online tool for migrants in Mexico to schedule appointments to be granted humanitarian parole on the basis of a fear of return to their country of origin.

“Once they are paroled into the United States for their period of parole, they’re eligible for work authorization because the government does not want them to be here without a means to support themselves,” she said. “What we do is help apply for that work authorization and if they decide that they would like to apply for asylum or become eligible for TPS in the meantime, our clinics provide free legal assistance to apply for those statuses.”

In Mayor Smith’s presentation, she noted these statuses and called for federal and state assistance to support local governments.

“The vast majority of immigration policy is controlled by the federal government, however local governments bear a significant portion of the burden for those decisions,” the plan reads. “As we search for additional resources to address growing problems like the shortage of quality, affordable housing, workforce development, poverty, and education, we need support and financial assistance from our state and federal partners.”

The plan also called for solutions to serve all citizens and to reinforce dignity and respect for all individuals in the community.

Lima council member Carla Thompson said she was confident in these plans to help integrate the new population into the community and said Springfield’s example, as well as what she saw at a local lunch event to assist the Haitian population with things like tenant etiquette and leasing procedure, gave her optimism.

“I saw a lot of positivity from people that were there,” she said. “They are really eager to get extra education and contribute to the community. What that means is that they want to be here and contribute. And that’s what America is about.”

At Monday night’s council meeting, Thomas DHaiti, a Haitian man living in Brooklyn, offered his services as an interpreter to the community.

• Allen County Job and Family Services reported about 550 applications for federal and state assistance programs with ethnicity and/or language listed as Haitian in the last year.

• The Lima Municipal Court utilized Haitian Creole interpreters 22 times from January of this year to April.

• Mercy Health-St. Rita’s reported an increase of 75 percent in the use of language lines, with Haitian Creole the most request language over the past year.

Information from Mayor Sharetta Smith

Reach Jacob Espinosa at 567-242-0399.