Asia Town Cleveland - photo Bob Perkoski

Asia Town Cleveland – photo Bob Perkoski

By Daniel J. McGraw

The first surprise about Jason Lin is that he is waiting in the lobby for me.

That may not seem like much, but Lin stands leaning against arm crutches that allow him to walk on his two prosthetic legs. But he took the trouble to come down the lobby of this old warehouse turned office building on Fulton Road, just south of the West Side Market. He is waiting for me, a journalist he has never met, just to make sure I don’t get lost or feel unwelcome. Lin, on the short side, in his sixties, and Asian, is my host. Riding in the glass elevator to his office, he proudly tells me that he bought this four-story, long abandoned building and rehabilitated it for office space. It is now 70 percent occupied.

I joke that it is good that I was on time so he didn’t have to wait in the lobby long. He jokes back that he likes people who are on time.

[blocktext align=”left”]Back in 1930, Cleveland had about 900,000 people, and about 25 percent were born in another country. In 2010, the city had about 390,000 people and about 5 percent were foreign born.[/blocktext]Upstairs in his unadorned office, with pictures of him with former President Ronald Reagan and with current Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson proudly displayed, we get down to business. I am curious why the Cleveland area doesn’t have many immigrants these days. Cleveland has about half of the national average, and ranks 74th out of the top hundred US metropolitan areas in percentage of immigrants compared to native-borns. I’m wondering why a region with big declining population and job loss isn’t in this population replacement game with better results, especially since new studies demonstrate that cities with more immigrants do better economically.

The numbers are striking. Back in 1930, Cleveland had about 900,000 people, and about 25 percent were born in another country. In 2010, the city had about 390,000 people and about 5 percent were foreign born. Yet the national percentage of foreign-borns in the United States, about 13 percent, is about the same now as it was in 1930. Cleveland, a city so proudly built by immigrants, is now far more native-born than most other American cities.

I ask Lin: this city portrays itself as welcoming to immigrants in chamber of commerce ads—is that not the case in reality? Or is it that city lacks jobs and opportunities? Perhaps, I ask more gently, it is politics, with some fearing foreign-borns will steal jobs and suck from the entitlement trough. I ask because it is hard for me to understand why Cleveland, a city that has long defined itself by immigrants and their contributions, has now such a small percentage of immigrants, and does not seem to be doing anything to welcome them into our house as Lin welcomed me into his. Maybe, I ask Lin, there is no long-term vision from city leaders on the topic of immigration?

Jason Lin

Jason Lin

Lin smiles. He knows he can’t win with any response. He deals with the city on finance and zoning issues, and it’s not good to act up inside someone else’s house. He is Chinese by ethnicity, Vietnamese by birth—one of the last ones out in 1975 when the Viet Cong were descending on Saigon. He had a half hour to gather up his wife and two kids, facing death or assignment to a reeducation camp if he didn’t move quickly because he worked for the US government during the war. Came here with nothing, worked many jobs by day, and eventually saved enough to move into the real estate game.

“I think sometimes Americans don’t quite understand what it really means to pick up everything and move to another country,” he said. “The reason so many immigrants become entrepreneurs is because doing that favors risk takers. We wouldn’t be here if we were not risk takers. When I got to Cleveland, I always saw it as I had to work and feed my family or starve. The choice is kind of easy.”

“The immigration issues have always been difficult,” he continued, choosing his words carefully. “I get the feeling that the current [Frank Jackson] administration and some of the business leaders haven’t put this on their radar, and that is a mistake. When the economic times are good, getting outside investment—and immigration is part of that—isn’t of big importance. But right now we don’t have as many choices, and I think this city is in a transition of seeing immigrants not as job takers but job creators.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Cleveland, which is now the 28th largest metropolitan area in the country, averages only 3.5 immigrants per 10,000 workers. [/blocktext]He then gave me an example of how the city’s inactivity makes little sense. Last April, Lin and Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins and other Cleveland-area business leaders from the Asian community took a trip to Zhongshan, China. Zhongshan is a city of about three million people, two hours from Hong Kong, and many in the Greater Cleveland Chinese community have ties to that region. Zhongshan is known as a manufacturing center, particularly for LED lighting products and household appliances.


Zhongshan, China

The Cleveland delegation spent three full days in Zhongshan, meeting with the city’s mayor and economic development officials, academics at educational institutions, lighting manufacturers, and a wind power development agency. They signed an informal agreement to develop a trade relationship and possible “sister city” designation between Zhongshan and Cleveland. Lin and Cummins were optimistic because Chinese government officials and business leaders were willing to meet with them for three days; they developed good contacts within the Chinese investment community and good indications that the Zhongshan officials saw Cleveland as a potential trading, education, and manufacturing partner.

But it’s now been a year since that trip and nothing has happened in Cleveland to match what happened in Zhongshan. No sister city designation has followed, or even an indication from the Jackson adminstration that it is considering it. Several groups of Chinese business leaders from Zhongshan have visited since, but nothing more than photo ops with some Cleveland councilman have been done. No one knows if this potential partnership is on or off, or if there will be any contact between Cleveland and Zhongshan again.

“It’s just been tough getting information on this,” Lin said. “I think there is some misunderstanding on how you do business with the Chinese. They are very formal in their business relationships, very much about having dinner together and meetings—and because government was and is so important over there—a meeting with the Mayor of Cleveland would have been very big. At this time, we don’t know if the door is closed or not.”


In his State of the City address in 2013, Mayor Jackson was asked about efforts to attract immigrants to Cleveland. “I believe in taking care of your own,” he answered. He caught a lot of grief for that and he later clarified his statement: “A Cleveland that ‘takes care of its own’ will ultimately attract people from all across the globe because our city offers an unrivaled ability for people to prosper in all that they do, as witnessed by the quality of life and standard of living by the people who are here.”

Part of the problem with the issue of immigration is that is has so many facets that simply being able to “prosper” is usually not enough. For instance, the federal government controls the number of visas, so a city or region, in effect, cannot charter a jet to Bangalore, India, and load up educated workers in the high-tech field and bring them to Cleveland. And perception is key: everyone interviewed for this story said the most important aspect of drawing and retaining legal immigrant workers to a specific region was “word of mouth.” Cleveland needs to work with the feds and improve the word on the street if it is to “attract people from all across the globe” as Jackson put it. And it is not doing either.

Why doesn’t Cleveland have good “word of mouth”? Local attorney Richard Herman, long an advocate for immigrant rights, blames Cleveland politicians who adhere to an antiquated strategy: play to the political base, the base that believes immigrants take jobs and depress wages.

Richard Herman at the Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan Awards Gala 2013 in Columbus - courtesy of Richard Herman

Richard Herman at the Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan Awards Gala 2013 in Columbus – courtesy of Richard Herman

“Cleveland doesn’t seem to want any outsiders,” Herman, co-author of the book Immigrant, Inc. told me. “The reason the city is falling down on this issue is that no one wants to take the chance to tell people exactly why having more immigrants coming to the region is a very good thing.” He continues: “There has to a be a vision in a matter like this, where the leaders for a community say that we have a badly declining population, one that is getting very much older, and the need for outsiders coming in to help address those problems.”

Other cities have figured this out: “Mayors in Philadelphia and Chicago and Columbus are seeing this, the Republican governor of Michigan is advocating programs that bring more immigrants to his state,” Herman said. “Even the city of Dayton is coming up with programs where the mayor is in a campaign where he is telling immigrants ‘Welcome to Dayton.’ Our mayor’s message is ‘we take care of our own.’ I don’t see how you can claim to be a global city with that attitude.”

Why would immigrants in Cleveland be a good thing? Because the studies show they are more likely to start new businesses than native-borns. According a study recently released by the Ewing Kauffman Marion Foundation, immigrants were almost twice as likely to start up new business in 2012 as native-born Americans. That figure has been rising through the years; in 1996, 13.7 percent of new businesses were started by immigrants nationwide; by 2012, it was 27.1 percent. In 2012, according to the study, immigrant-founded engineering and technology firms employed approximately 560,000 workers and generated $63 billion in sales.

[blocktext align=”left”]Case Western Reserve University’s student body is now 20 percent foreign born, up from 12 percent five years ago.[/blocktext]Breaking down the numbers more reveals how far Cleveland has fallen compared to other major American cities. For instance, the number of high-tech immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States grew by 63 percent between 2000 and 2011, while in the Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor area, the number grew by only 43 percent, from 244 to 350. (The numbers for native-born, high-tech businesses are no better: native-born, high-tech entrepreneurs grew by 22 percent nationally during this same period, but in Northeast Ohio the number grew by just 6 percent.)

So even though the high-tech field included pharmaceutical and medical businesses, often touted as Cleveland strengths, Cleveland is not faring well.

Of course, this region has been troubled in general lately, so national figures may be misleading. Except they are not. Because if we compare Cleveland’s numbers to cities in our region, Cleveland is still at the bottom of immigration entrepreneur growth: between 2000 and 2011, Pittsburgh saw 204 percent increase, Cincinnati 137 percent, Detroit 134 percent, Chicago 65 percent, and Cleveland 43 percent. Only Dayton—a city that has begun to aggressively court immigrants—finished behind at 28 percent.

Asia Town Cleveland - Photo Bob Perkoski

Asia Town Cleveland – Photo Bob Perkoski

How do these statistics correlate to population? For high-tech immigrant entrepreneur total population, the numbers don’t get any better. The Kauffman Foundation found that the number of high-tech immigrant entrepreneurs per 10,000 people averaged 8.0 nationally. That number goes up to an average of 13.1 for the top 25 metropolitan areas, because high-tech entrepreneurs tend to locate in larger urban areas. Cleveland, which is now the 28th largest metropolitan area in the country, averages only 3.5 immigrants per 10,000 workers. So it is way below the national average and even far below other population-dense areas.

If we break these numbers down to look just at our region, Cleveland does a tad better. Detroit and Columbus have more high-tech immigrant entrepreneurs per 10,000, but Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Dayton are lower than Cleveland. Still, if you take out the Silicon Valley regions, Cleveland, at 3.5, still comes in very far behind Boston (9.6), Philadelphia (5.7), Denver (7.0), Baltimore (7.9), and Atlanta (9.6).

One reason some places attract more job-creating immigrants than others is that immigrants beget immigrants. Or as the Kaufmann Foundation report states: “higher ethnic diversity and a larger share of foreign born populations are crucial factors in attracting or fostering immigrant high-tech entrepreneurship on the metropolitan level.” In other words, immigrants who create jobs like to be in a place that has people who are like them. Because while they are pursuing the American dream, it helps a bit to have some music and food and language that reminds you of where you used to live. That’s the basic human part of economic development.

immigration_chartSo one reason Cleveland does not get many of the job-creating immigrant entrepreneurs because there aren’t a lot of foreign-borns here. And the foreign-borns don’t come her because there aren’t a lot of job opportunities here. It’s not easy to fix.

And to fix it, you would have to admit we have a problem in the first place. And Cleveland, which always touts itself as city with great diversity, would have to admit that it isn’t as diverse as it thinks it is.


American immigration reform is complicated: the nation has to decide what to do with the undocumented workers already here, how many and which new ones to let in, and confront border fences and national security issues. But policies on immigration can be different in different parts of the country. In general, the immigration debate has been defined by places like Arizona, which has population growth issues, a higher number of undocumented immigrants, and borders Mexico. But the Midwest is different. With an aging and a declining population, Ohio, Michigan, and other states clearly need to have more people in the pipeline, as well as attract new investments and retain foreign college students after they graduate. And many in the Midwest think the border with Canada should be more open.

Some Midwestern policymakers have seen that immigration reform needs to be tailored to regions. Michigan governor Rick Snyder proposed that the federal government should grant 50,000 special visas for higher-educated foreigners, as long as they agree to live in the Detroit area for five years. This program is not unlike one in Canada, where one-third of the country’s total immigration comes through requests from each province. The goal of the Canadian program is to spread out immigrants, so there are not too many in Toronto and enough in Winnipeg, if Winnipeg needs them.

No one expects Snyder’s proposal to get enacted as is, especially when Congress cannot decide on how high and how many miles the border fence should be. “But we are seeing some American cities and states establishing immigration programs, and those that are being successful are the ones taking a proactive approach to immigration,” said Jason Wiens of the Kauffman Foundation. “At least it is being talked about now, and a lot of that has to do with some of the cities seeing immigration as a positive force and something they want to increase.”

In 2011, Chicago created the Office of New Americans, housed in the mayor’s office. It is a clearinghouse for a host of services—foreign language interpreters to explain city services, lobbying for immigration issues Chicago favors, and economic development soliciting foreign-born business investment for the city in the United States and abroad.

“We have always had a strong immigrant population in Chicago, and we are proud of that fact and we see it as a plus when we see ourselves as a global city with global importance,” said Adolpho Hernandez, director of the Chicago office of New Americans and whose parents were born in Mexico. “And we have seen that our older immigrants have kept a presence in the city itself, and they understand that new immigrants are a part of what this city is about.”

Adolfo Hernández, Chicago’s Director of the Office of New Americans - courtesy of Voices Beyond Borders

Adolfo Hernández, Chicago’s Director of the Office of New Americans – courtesy of Voices Beyond Borders

“But our policy on this is really basic,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want to see a population decline, and we need young people to support our older population. We have worked very hard to make sure our citizens understand this is a long-term policy that is vital to our future.”

Detroit has joined Chicago in being proactive. Global Detroit started in 2010, and is a quasi-public/private organization. Like Chicago, it offers a one-stop shop for a host of immigration services, with an emphasis on college graduate retention. Out in front of the issue is Governor Snyder. “People think they’re taking jobs,” he said during a speech last year, “but the reality is that they create jobs. Immigration and economic development—they go hand in hand. Open the welcome mat.”

Columbus and Philadelphia have also been very public about their desire to increase the numbers of immigrants in their cities. Philadelphia has for college graduate retainment, as well as immigrant services in a separate department within Mayor Michael Nutter’s office. In Columbus, Mayor Michael Coleman has been front and center on immigration. “The mayor has seen that if we are going to be an ethnically diverse and growing city, we have to be as welcoming as we can be to foreign-born people who want to call this their home,” said Napoleon Bell, the director of the city’s office of community development.

“And what we have found is that when we improve how we treat immigrants, we are also improving the way we treat the people already here,” he continued. And the city known once derided as being as white bread and suburban as a city can get, is now celebrating its growing foreign-born diversity population: the cover story of Columbus Monthly in March 2014 was on the city’s new immigrants.

[blocktext align=”left”]According to several sources, however, Roller has been met with opposition from city hall in being more proactive in selling the idea of more immigrants in Cleveland through community meetings and information campaigns.[/blocktext]In Cleveland, leadership has not been so aggressive, as Mayor Jackson’s speech reveals. Nor has the group dedicated to immigrant attraction, Global Cleveland. Started in 2011, Global Cleveland has similar stated goals as those of Global Detroit and the Office of New Americans. But its history and purpose are all over the place. Funded by Huntington Bank and other businesses and foundations, and bolstered by white papers written by both the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and PolicyBridge, a Northeast Ohio think tank that advocates on behalf of minority business interests, the organization began with the premise that foreign-borns benefit the region.

But the organization had too many board members and advsiors (about 100 total) and couldn’t agree what tack to take. They hired Larry Miller, a former human resource manager for Lubrizol Corporation in Lake County, as their first director, and Miller and the board made a strange decision: they decided to concentrate on attracting “boomerangers” back to Cleveland instead of immigrants.

Boomerangers are former Clevelanders, usually baby boomers or recent college graduates, who move back to their home town, often because of its cheap cost of living, or because their parents are old and need attention. But the emphasis on this market, hardly big in any way, for an organization whose goal was to make Cleveland more of an international city, was quite odd. In fact, the message was often that Cleveland is a good place to live because no one is here anymore: move back to Cleveland and you will no longer be annoyed by traffic.

Global Cleveland also touted Cleveland as a good place to live because we have good healthcare institutions in case you get sick. So in a nutshell, the organization charged with getting newcomers to Cleveland was selling the city as a place where hardly anyone lives and it’s good if you get sick.

Joy Roller, President at Global Cleveland

Joy Roller, President at Global Cleveland

Joy Roller, a former TV news producer who served as executive director for the Gordon Square Arts District for six years, took over for Global Cleveland in November of 2012. She offers more programs now, including the launch of a more proactive college graduate retention program and has redesigned the website to include people speaking foreign languages. According to several sources, however, Roller has been met with opposition from city hall in being more proactive in selling the idea of more immigrants in Cleveland through community meetings and information campaigns.

But Global Cleveland is very much a work in progress. Take the program advising foreign-born college students how to stay in Cleveland after graduation. Global Cleveland has mostly been doing job fair type events, rather than provide students the kind of help with visas and immigration services offered at, say,

Improving college student immigrant retention matters because there are more foreign college students in Cleveland than ever before. Case Western Reserve University’s student body is now 20 percent foreign born, up from 12 percent five years ago. In fact, in this year’s freshman class, more students are from Beijing than any other city. Cleveland comes in at number two, and number three is Shanghai.

But it is still quite obvious that immigration—even the word itself— is not something that Global Cleveland emphasizes. The word they use is “newcomers.” Roller explains why: “Because the immigration policies are out of our control, we are concentrating on getting people to move here no matter if they are from a foreign country or from another region in the US.”

[blocktext align=”left”]One has to appeal to the African-American pastor in Kinsman and the soccer mom in Mentor and the real estate developer in Bay Village and the third-generation Irish cop in West Park. [/blocktext]Roller told me she has not been instructed to avoid “foreigners” or “immigrants” by Mayor Frank Jackson or the organization’s board of directors. Instead, she cites their policy is to be more inclusive. “We are adding programs, and our welcoming center is a one-stop shop for services and information, but we don’t think our interests are best served by identifying and concentrating on one group,” she said.

What Global Cleveland is saying is that moving here from Somalia or Cincinnati are basically the same thing. But the issue that they are avoiding is that there are big differences in those two “newcomers” in terms of adding to the cultural soup in Cleveland.

Selling different native-born parties on being more aggressive on immigration means talking to native-borns in Northeast Ohio. One has to appeal to the African-American pastor in Kinsman and the soccer mom in Mentor and the real estate developer in Bay Village and the third-generation Irish cop in West Park.

And the issue to sell them on is economics. Demographer and urban planner Richey Piiparinen, who heads the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University (and is one of the founders of Rust Belt Chic Press), published a study last year that found the Cleveland area (ranked 28th in population nationally) was ranked 35th in people leaving and 44th in the number of residents moving in. While those numbers were interpreted by many as positive, it is also true that since 2011 more people have left Cuyahoga County than any other county in Ohio.

Belt requested and received interviews with representatives from mayor’s offices in Dayton, Columbus, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit for this story. We requested and did not receive an interview from the mayor’s office in Cleveland. We did receive an email from Jackson’s spokeswoman, Maureen Harper, which read, in part: “All of the quality of life efforts we undertake, the educational reform that is underway and the investment environment we work to create tie together in an effort to make Cleveland a great place to live, work and invest—for our current residents and for potential immigrants, including international entrepreneurs.


So does Cleveland want any immigrants? Some say the once powerful Midwest unions perceive cheap immigrant labor as one reason they are losing power. Some claim African Americans aren’t really keen on foreigners moving in when they are trying to gain their share of the pot. In this instance, the races might be united, because as many whites in Parma as blacks in Glenville aren’t really happy with any kind of newcomer.

Mansfield Frazier, a Cleveland journalist, radio host, and vintner, thinks whites and blacks in the city share a common characteristic. “Cleveland is very provincial, and we don’t really like outsiders even if they are native-born,” he said. And he is right: Cleveland is the fourth-oldest city in the country in the age of its citizens, and ranks very low in education attainment and annual income. It has a very high percentage of people who were born here, all characteristics that lead to a distrust of things that are not familiar.

Cleveland journalist, radio host, and vintner, Mansfield Frazier - photo Bob Perkoski

Cleveland journalist, radio host, and vintner, Mansfield Frazier – photo Bob Perkoski

Frazier, a 70-year-old African American whose grandmother was born into slavery in 1860, says the history of the city is all about ethnic rivalries, blue collar protections of jobs, and a fairly low education level. “This is an insular place, and has an older population, and change is not something that people in Cleveland have welcomed,” Frazier said.

But he said he also understands the racial conundrum when dealing with immigration. He pointed out that, in January, Crain’s Cleveland Business had Cleveland notables give their views on the coming year and that that story featured 40 white people (four were women). Joy Roller was so upset about the story that she wrote a letter to the editor.

“The next time a list is compiled, I hope you will consider the rich fabric of women, minorities, and newcomers in the region,” Roller wrote. “If you don’t, Cleveland will continue to be a balkanized city that looks backwards and inward instead of the center of a growing, global economy.”

Frazier said the city has to solve its inclusion of minorities before it can even get near the issue of welcoming of immigrants: “If we can’t be inclusive to the minorities already here, why should we bring in more [immigrant] minorities? The feeling in the immigrant community is that this is not a warm, fuzzy place. Part of that is due to Frank [Jackson], but it is also due to the fact that a local business newspaper asks 40 white people what they think will happen to the city this year, and doesn’t ask anyone of color.”

Rev. Max Rodas, a native of Guatemala and pastor of the Garfield Heights Church of the Nazarene, says the perception of being welcome goes a long way in the Hispanic community. “When Latinos talk, they talk about what cities are friendly toward them and which are not,” Rodas said. “They talk about job opportunities and how they are treated. The city of Cleveland is not bad on those issues, but in the eastern suburbs, people are stopped by police all the time because they are Hispanic.”

Rev. Max Rodas, pastor Garfield Heights Church of the Nazarene - photo Bob Perkoski

Rev. Max Rodas, pastor Garfield Heights Church of the Nazarene – photo Bob Perkoski

“But what I don’t understand,” Rodas continued, “is that Cleveland is losing population and the choices to turn that around are fewer and fewer. Latinos are moving into Cleveland, but not nearly in the numbers that they should be. And that is because of the perceived attitude of the city. It’s not that they work hard against immigration, but they don’t work for it much either.”

And that is perhaps the main immigrant issue conundrum in the Midwest. Many now see that bringing immigrants in has less to do with humanitarian refugee indoctrination programs, and more to do with repopulating neighborhoods that have been abandoned. “There is value for immigrants when they come into a regional economy and that is beyond dispute,” said Johnathan Holifield vice president of inclusive competitiveness for Nortech, a private nonprofit in Cleveland that works with companies in energy, electronics, and water technologies.”

“But we have to attract the immigrants and develop the incumbent talent,” Holifield, an African American, said. “But you cannot move forward without an equally innovative approach to develop the talent already here. We have to develop the best policies for them both.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Many now see that bringing immigrants in has less to do with humanitarian refugee indoctrination programs, and more to do with repopulating neighborhoods that have been abandoned.[/blocktext]The issue of immigration into big cities does have an African-American political component, and no one in Cleveland wants to talk about it. The African American Leadership Council opposed the latest immigration reform legislation because of the economic harm it will cause to the black community. And in the middle of this are two Clevelanders, which may explain why the city has been cautious about advocating foreign-borns to move to the city.

Peter Kirsanow is a Cleveland African-American attorney with Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff and one of the commissioners on the US Commission of Civil Rights, a federal commission created by Congress in 1957 (Kirsanow was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002). Last summer, he sent a letter to Marcia Fudge, the three-term Cleveland Congress member and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, asking her to persuade those in the black caucus to vote against the immigration reform compromise bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally and present more visa options for lower-skilled immigrant labor.

“The evidence shows that immigration accounts for 40 percent of the 18-percentage-point decline in black employment rates over the last several decades,” Kirsanow and two other board members wrote. “That’s hundreds of thousands of blacks thrown out of work, hundreds of thousands who can’t support families without taxpayer assistance.”

So it is easy to see how the national and local politics have jammed this issue up in Cleveland. Mayor Frank Jackson can look around and find that African Americans (the largest voting block in the city), aren’t exactly thrilled with bringing in more immigrants. For the same reason, Rep. Marcia Fudge has been largely silent locally on immigration. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is in the hunt for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, cannot go near the immigration reform issue without taking a huge risk with the conservative Republican base that now dominates the primary elections.

And that is probably why Ohio ranks 40th among the states in the percentage of foreign-borns. And that is why Cleveland is basically sitting on the sidelines while other cities are seeing immigration as one economic development tool to offset population decline and help their region transform from a largely manufacturing economy to a more high-tech information economy.

But the race issue is not coming into play as much in other cities. Both Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter and Columbus’ Mayor Coleman are African-American, and have used the message that their people were once considered foreigners in many respects when they came up north from the south in the early 1900s. Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, also an African-American, whose term ended in December, came out for immigration reform last year and argued more immigrants to the Queen City would be a good thing.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory - courtesy of WCPO Cincinnati

Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory – courtesy of WCPO Cincinnati

“Immigration is broken. The president knows it, Congress knows it,” Mallory said last May. “The bottom line is immigration reform is good for American business, immigration reform is good for the economy.” Current Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said last week his goal is “to make Cincinnati the most immigrant-friendly city in the country,” and that immigrants are a “community redevelopment tool” in helping the city to restore older, blighted neighborhoods.


After meeting with Jason Lin in his office, he invites me to eat with him at Emperor’s Palace, a restaurant he co-owns and helped renovate in the old Chinatown in Cleveland on Rockwell Avenue. He gives me a tour and points out the large round tables they have in separate rooms, ways for large parties or families to eat privately.

“We had a round table when we ate with the business leaders in Zongshan that seated 35,” he says. “Had a Lazy Susan on top. Biggest Lazy Susan I’ve ever seen.”

Old Chinatown in Cleveland on Rockwell Avenue - photo Bob Perkoski

Old Chinatown in Cleveland on Rockwell Avenue – photo Bob Perkoski

Lin orders dim sum for me, a dozen or so different dishes, too much to finish, but all very good. He knows the restaurant business very well (he’s owned a few in his time here), and he instructs me on the benefits of root vegetables like taro root, which is before me deep fried and stuffed with some kind of pork mixture.

I find out his first name was originally Chishang and he changed it to Jason when he moved here because the pronunciation was similar and Americanizing his name was the easiest way to make it here. He speaks proudly of his three grown children, including one son who is a career US Army military man. And how he is very proud of being a Boy Scout leader during all his years in Cleveland.

I then ask him how he lost use of his legs, and he pulls up his pant legs and shows me he has no legs. On a winter night in 1982, when he was 31 years old, just seven years since he left his homeland, he stopped his car to help one of his employees whose car had broken down. While helping hook jumper cables to the battery, a car plowed into the two vehicles and he was pinned between them. His legs had to be amputated above the knees.

I asked him how he handled having to learn to walk with prosthetics. “I told my wife to get two-by-fours that I could use because my stumps were too swollen to get into the prosthetics,“ Lin said with a laugh. But then he just shrugged. “You just do what you can. I get very impatient, so I kept working on walking. I was walking on my own about eight months after the accident.”

But then we go back to Cleveland and immigrants and how all this stuff fits in these days. Lin says that he likes Mayor Jackson “but I don’t think he sees immigration as an important issue for Cleveland right now, and I think that is a big mistake.”

“We need to go where the money is and the money is in China,” he continues. “We have to see them as a bank, and not that we’re selling out to them. I’ve had banks invest in projects I’ve done and it didn’t really matter where the bank was. It was just a loan. And that’s all this is. Chinese investors want a place to invest their money, and we have the place and the need for it. It’s not too complicated.”

Of course, it’s less complicated when the investors think they are wanted. And perhaps developing a relationship strong enough where they send their kids to school here (the president of Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School was on the Zhongshan trip for that reason). And good enough that they encourage other investors to check out Cleveland.

As I get up from the table, Lin rocks back on his chair and pops up on his fake legs, smiling as he grabs his arm crutches and walks me to the door. He wishes me well and tells me how much he enjoyed meeting me and to stay in touch. I then walk through the beautiful gold-wallpapered restaurant, with vertically written sayings I don’t understand and wooden carvings in the doors that are meaningful to any observer, regardless of where they were born.

And with that I leave, thinking of newcomers and immigrants and gigantic Lazy Susans, making my way to the car and looking at all the vacant property on Rockwell Avenue in view of the lighted Cleveland skyline. I get hit up twice by panhandlers on the half-block walk to the car. They appear to be native-born panhandlers.

Daniel J. McGraw is a Senior Writer at Belt.

Photo Bob Perkoski