SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And while some groups, like Mr. Medina's, are pushing for greater acceptance of immigration, a coalition of civic, community and business leaders in Dayton, Ohio, is already embracing them. Last year, the city of Dayton declared itself as immigrant-friendly in hopes of stemming population loss and growing the economy. As Emily McCord of member station WYSO reports, it's an approach that's influencing the way other cities now deal with immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Defense, defense, defense. Come get the ball.

EMILY MCCORD, BYLINE: Apparently there's one common language that some recent immigrants to Dayton seem to share - soccer.

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MCCORD: It's now been a year since the immigrant-friendly plan was adopted here, and real change comes slowly. But this mini World Cup event is a start. A rainbow of brightly colored jerseys dot the field here representing nearly 20 of the different immigrant communities in this city.

ADOLPHE BIZWINAYO: I've been really surprised to see that there are a lot of soccer going on around here in Dayton.

MCCORD: Adolphe Bizwinayo left Rwanda as a refugee. He says Dayton has helped him transition to American life and these World Soccer Games are playing an important role.

BIZWINAYO: Just bring this joy, like we are home, like how we used to play soccer back at home when we would play for hours and hours.

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MCCORD: The so-called Welcome Dayton plan aims to make newcomers feel that way. When the framework was adopted, City Manager Tim Riordan says it was for two reasons. First, it was the right to do, and secondly, immigrants were needed to restore this battered cities' economy.

TIM RIORDAN: I saw immigrants doing things in the neighborhoods. They were buying really inexpensive houses and fixing them up. I heard stories from hardware owners where the immigrants would come and buy one window at a time to fix up their house as they got money.

MCCORD: Riordan says changing Dayton's culture is an investment in the city. For example, a section of town now is designated as an immigrant business zone. The plan also addresses law enforcement. Police now only check immigration status when there are suspicions of a serious crime.

AUDREY SINGER: We are seeing change.

MCCORD: Audrey Singer studies immigration at the Brookings Institution.

SINGER: What's good with the Dayton program is the way the leaders in those communities talk about immigrants and talk about them as a positive force and contributing.

MCCORD: In fact, a Brookings study finds that immigrants are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than U.S.-born citizens. That's good news for a city like Dayton that's been bleeding jobs and population for decades. But not everyone thinks this open-arms approach is a good one. Steve Salvi runs the Cleveland-based Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, a group focused on illegal immigration.

STEVE SALVI: The city is relying on this myth that immigrants are, you know, going to be the savior of Dayton. And I think what the city needs to do is focus on helping native residents and make the city a place where people want to come and start a business if they're immigrants or native born.

MCCORD: Salvi's concerned that Dayton could become a sanctuary city, a place harboring illegal immigrants. City Manager Tim Riordan says the term immigrant is not a synonym for illegal.

RIORDAN: Frankly, the good people of Dayton didn't have that kind of attitude. It was the people from outside of Dayton. I got emails from Wyoming and Montana telling us what to do. And it's, like, eh, it's not your business.

MCCORD: Besides, says Riordan, the real thrust of the plan is focus on legal immigrants, like Francis Matias.

FRANCIS MATIAS: Hello? Antojitos.

MCCORD: Antojitos restaurant serves Puerto Rican food. Matias says they have specialty dishes like Mofongo - plantains, which are fried and mashed.

MATIAS: We have all the seasonings here, and all the pork, the butter. And now he going to put the plantains in the mortar and start mashing.

MCCORD: Matias has worked hard to get his restaurant off the ground and is excited about Welcome Dayton. He thinks it makes it a little easier for people like him to start a business here. And that's different from other places.

MATIAS: In other states, it's harder. They're following immigrants. And they treated like criminals. Here, it's great.

MCCORD: But there are signs of change. Other cities are now adopting plans similar to Dayton's - cities like Tucson and Salt Lake City and others, who are making it official policy to welcome immigrants and help them feel at home. For NPR news, I'm Emily McCord.

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SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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