Give us your best, brightest Few immigrants land in Ohio, but most who do are educated

The Plain Dealer
Saturday, August 23, 2003

Robert L. Smith and Dave Davis; Plain Dealer Reporters

If quality matters more than quantity, Ohio's immigrants shine brighter than most. They are far more likely than immigrants landing elsewhere in America to hold a college degree. The state's recent immigrant community, one of the smartest in America, may force policy planners to look at immigrants in a new light.

About half of the foreign-born adults who arrived in Ohio between 1995 and 2000 had graduated from a university, and more than two- thirds had at least some college education in their background, according to an analysis of U.S. census information.

Ohio attracts a paucity of immigrants compared with most states, contributing to its status as one of the slowest-growing states in America. But new data suggest that the immigrants who do come here belong to an elite class.

"It's a small number, but the number is more selective," said William Frey, the University of Michigan demographer who spied the trend.

Of the 51,999 foreign-born people over age 24 who arrived in Ohio in the late 1990s, 26,398 held college degrees, Frey said.

In comparison, California drew about 704,000 foreign-born adults over the same span, Frey said, but only about one-third of them were college graduates.

From 1995 to 2000, the nation welcomed 5.6 million immigrants, and about 34 percent of the adults held college degrees. That places the immigrant population ahead of the education level of the native population. About 25 percent of Americans are college-educated, and 20 percent of Ohioans.

But in Ohio, the poor and tired "huddled masses" of Emma Lazarus' poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty have been largely replaced by hopeful scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. About 68 percent of immigrants arriving here late last decade had attended some college and 51 percent graduated, Frey found.

Among states receiving at least 50,000 immigrants from 1995 to 2000, Ohio's immigrants ranked second in educational attainment, behind Michigan. Among all states, Ohio's immigrants ranked seventh- smartest.

Ohio's ability to draw some of the globe's best and brightest did not surprise local immigration experts. They say changes in federal immigration law, coupled with a dearth of fresh ethnic communities in Ohio to build upon, result in a select class of newcomers.

America is most welcoming to foreigners coming to reunite with family, and that creates mass immigration in states with large ethnic enclaves, like California and New York. The law, thanks to reforms in 1990, also allows for a smaller stream of immigration based on superior skills.

In regions like Northeast Ohio, where most ethnic communities are well established, immigrants often arrive waving a university degree or possessing unusual ability.

"These people often get in based on their education, because they have no family here," said Margaret Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong who founded a Cleveland law firm specializing in immigration issues.

Wong said many of the Asian Indians and Russians new to Cleveland received visas by virtue of their technical savvy or doctoral degrees. She said many are drawn to the region's colleges.

Still others were forced to flee civil wars and revolutions and join the refugee stream, another source of educated immigrants for a state attracting few newcomers.

"When there's turmoil in a country, the intelligentsia are the first to be targeted, because they're considered a threat to the new regime," said Algis Ruksenas, director of the International Services Center of Cleveland.

He said Greater Cleveland resettled about 6,000 refugees over the past 10 years, many of them professionals from fractured societies in Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

Ohio, like other Midwest states, is also more likely to attract immigrants from Europe and Asia, while the rest of the nation draws heavily from the developing nations of Latin America, Frey said.

Immigrants from the industrialized world, in turn, are more likely to arrive educated or skilled.

"That's the story of the Heartland states," Frey said. "I think it's one of the reasons a lot of the mayors are hoping to bolster immigration. These are the immigrants they're thinking of."

Experts agree that a talented class of immigrants brings more value and less burden to a community. But in Ohio, the wealth is not equally spread. Cleveland and Columbus draw most of the state's immigrants, and Columbus is surpassing Cleveland as the state's gateway city.

The state capital was the only one of Ohio's 15 largest cities to grow last decade, thanks largely to immigration.

From 1995 to 2000, Cuyahoga County received 19,322 immigrants, according to the 2000 census. Franklin County attracted 28,000 immigrants during the same span, the first time Greater Columbus outdrew Greater Cleveland.

Columbus also has had more success keeping its new residents. In Cuyahoga County, more foreign-born residents left than arrived in the 1990s, illustrating a pattern that, except for Columbus, runs statewide.

Ohio may attract educated immigrants, but it has trouble keeping them, a report released yesterday by the Census Bureau shows.

The new report tracked the movement of the foreign-born population across America from 1995 to 2000, as immigrants landed in America and then resettled.

The Census Bureau did not delve as deeply as Frey, who cross- referenced immigration numbers with education levels, but the government's report is wider in scope.

It found that six gateway states - California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas and Illinois - took the lion's share of the nation's immigrants from 1995 to 2000. But much of the foreign-born population then fanned out in a "secondary migration" across the land.

Immigrants tended to move to the same places as everyone else. They poured into Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida. But they also streamed into Iowa and Tennessee and added new cultures and languages to Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Ohio, in contrast, suffered a net loss of foreign-born residents, meaning the state lost more foreigners than it welcomed in the late 1990s.

In Northeast Ohio, only Medina and Geauga counties saw a net gain in foreign- born residents.

Still, some think the recent census findings are cause for optimism and perhaps for an aggressive new public policy.

If immigrants to Ohio tend to be smarter than most, some say, the state should hustle to welcome more.

Richard Herman, a local immigration lawyer who promotes immigration as a means of reviving Cleveland, said his most recent client is a banker moving to Cleveland from Africa's Ivory Coast. Herman said the banker was able to obtain a work permit, or green card, based on his expertise with African economies.

Herman also said there are more where he came from.

"We could target these people," Herman said. "Why doesn't Cleveland recruit the scientists and engineers in developing countries? It sounds predatory, but we're in a global competition for talent."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4024

CHART: Educated immigrants
SOURCE: Analysis of Census 2000 data by William Frey, University of Michigan Population Studies center