Lake County, Ohio Population
PAINESVILLE, Ohio - Just as the country's economy began to tank in 2007, Painesville resident Angela Flores opened her dream business: a hair salon. She didn't worry about the economic meltdown. She was convinced her business was depression- and recession-proof because it would cater to the city's Hispanic population.
The numbers bear Flores out. No city between Solon and Niagara Falls gained as many residents as Painesville in the last decade. The city's population grew 12 percent during that period, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. And in that time, its Hispanic community almost doubled.
The Census says 4, 298 Hispanics live in Painesville. In 1990, there were 389. Twenty-two percent of the city's 19, 563 residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino. The majority of this group traces its roots to one city in central Mexico.
While population growth in the rust belt is usually cause for celebration, some in Painesville aren't so happy with the numbers. They fear Painesville will be labeled a sanctuary city - a term used to brand cities that protect undocumented immigrants.
Immigration has changed the city's cash-strapped public schools. Forty percent of the students now are Hispanic. Numerous cuts have been made, but services for Hispanic children are intact as the needs there are so great.
Still, the business community embraces the immigrants - whether they are legal or not. And Flores' salon has flourished.
Nursery jobs was lure to the city
Mexican immigrants began coming to Lake County in the 1980s. Several entered the country legally to work in the area's nurseries. The former Immigration and Naturalization Services granted visas for those interested in working in agriculture.
Many of the immigrants became legal permanent residents or citizens and moved their immediate families to the area.
Lake County nurseries have a solid reputation, with almost $88 million in annual sales. The industry owes much of its success to the Hispanic community, said Mark Gilson, owner of Gilson Gardens, a 40-acre spread just outside Painesville. "I believe the economy is enhanced by having this population, " he said.
A 2009 study funded by the Cleveland Foundation determined the county's nursery industry generates nearly 1, 330 jobs annually, that support another 76 jobs in the county.
Gilson said he asks all potential employees to show identification. He said he does his best to ensure that his workers are legal, but said there is no way to verify whether the papers produced are forged.
Latest estimates from the Census Bureau show that 13 percent of Painesville's total population is foreign-born and 9 percent are not citizens. About 80 percent of the city's Hispanic residents are of Mexican descent.
Flores' father was one of the first Mexican immigrants to work in the nurseries, she said. Flores, 34, still remembers when the town lacked convenience stores that sold ethnic goods. She said a local businessman regularly took grocery orders from Hispanics that he'd fill with products bought in Chicago.
The city now has three ethnic stores and at least four Mexican restaurants.
Painesville has grown in population even as it's largest employer moved some miles outside its boundaries to Concord Township in 2009. When LakeEast Medical Center left, it cost the city 950 jobs and $600, 000 in annual revenue.
Some local officials and business leaders attribute the population growth to downtown revitalization, the opening of an industrial park, higher enrollment at Lake Erie College and land annexation. Forty-five businesses started within the city between 2008 and 2010, the city's department of economic development said.
Still, Painesville's income tax revenue declined during those three years. Businesses contributed $1.5 million less in 2010 compared to 2008. Individuals paid $83, 000 less in the same period.
Immigration waves common in Painesville
Jobs are the reason the Midwest has been a destination for immigrants. Most of the positions they fill don't require people with high English proficiency.
The immigrants don't steal jobs from locals, asserted Katherine Fenelly, a University of Minnesota professor. Instead, they take jobs employers have a hard time filling.
"If there is competition for jobs, the competition tends to be within those who have the same skills set, which would be among immigrants, " said Fenelly, who has researched immigration and the way communities and public agencies adapt to demographic changes.
She said work immigrants tend to get are in low-wage food processing and manufacturing.
Gilson, former president of the Nursery Growers of Lake County Ohio, Inc., said immigrants often do the strenuous labor that he has seen U.S.-born workers quit after a few weeks.
Fenelly said some immigrants even open businesses in their communities that replace those that have closed.
"We have a rapidly aging population, and the people who are coming up are rejuvenating those towns, " she said.
Take Pascual Rodriguez, who left his hometown, Leon, Mexico, in 1985 to work at a nursery outside Painesville. It is a trip taken by many people who ended up in Painesville. Leon, Mexico's sixth largest city, is know worldwide for its leather goods. In this Northeastern Ohio town, it is known more as the birthplace of many of its residents.
Rodriguez worked at the nursery for 18 years. He became a citizen in the mid-1990s. His wife followed him here shortly after he came to Ohio. They now have a 17-year-old U.S.-born daughter. He left his field job nearly eight years ago and became a businessman.
Rodriguez, 44, bought the building at North State Street and Canfield Drive that used to be Nino's Lounge, a Painesville bar the city shut in 2001. Today, from the spot, he runs one of the city's ethnic convenience stores. It sells everything from Italian-style bread crumbs and Miller Lite to avocados and cured pork rinds packed in vinegar solution.
"There are other [ethnic] stores, but we thought our community was big enough that we could open another one, " Rodriguez said.
Fenelly said immigrants also contribute to their new places of residency by paying taxes.
Regardless of immigration status, the Internal Revenue Service issues Individual Tax Identification Numbers to people who are required to pay taxes, but are not eligible to obtain a Social Security number.
City Manager Rita McMahon said Hispanics with businesses in Painesville don't just cater to Hispanics.
"There's always been waves of immigration [in Painesville]. We had a large Hungarian population, Italian, Irish, " she said. "Hispanic, primarily Mexican, is the most recent, and we always see the benefits they bring."
Many of the immigrants are undocumented
While many Hispanics arrive in Painesville legally, others do not.
For nearly a decade, hundreds of Mexicans willing to work in the area paid up to $2, 000 to be sneaked across the border, then packed into vans in Arizona, finally to be dropped off in Painesville, Lorain and Ashtabula.
One man who profited from the human smuggling was sentenced to 10 years in a U.S. prison in 2007, according to federal records. Most of his passengers were from Leon.