Too many Cincinnatians accept the view that as a community we are always simply buffeted by outside forces, unable to proactively take control of our fate. At least in one area, individuals and organizations across a wide spectrum have recently rallied in a way that challenges that popular mythology.

In 2013 Mayor John Cranley and the City Council declared their intention to make Cincinnati a more “immigrant-friendly community.” Since then a collection of business, civic and religious organizations have worked to translate that aspirational goal into reality. Organizationally, this effort has taken the form of the new Center for New Cincinnatians, which operates across a wide front of initiatives related to stimulating immigration to metropolitan Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and its business partners lead one portion of this initiative. Mary Stagaman, the senior inclusion advisor for the chamber, recently pointed to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy that noted that regions which are growing their economies and labor force are doing it through “in-migration of newcomers and a high percentage of those newcomers are immigrants.” Currently, with only a 3.5 percent immigrant population, Cincinnati lags behind the most vibrant metro areas.

The chamber and the business community are particularly focused on increasing the number and proportion of high value STEM workers (scientists, technology developers and analysts, engineers and medical researchers). On a policy level, that means increasing the number of available H1-B visas and removing the roadblocks that prevent international students who have completed STEM graduate degrees in local universities from staying in the United States.

On another front, religious organizations are working with city government to better integrate undocumented immigrants into the community. On Saturday, Aug. 20, more than 350 undocumented immigrants came to Woodward High School to sign up for a Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati ID Card. The card was developed by MARCC, an interfaith organization of 17 religious bodies, and is administered by the Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio.

Both of these efforts clearly run counter to the current anti-immigrant rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump. He has called for a wall across the southern border and the expulsion of approximately 11 million undocumented individuals already living in the U.S. In addition, in the March 10 primary debate, he called for the complete elimination of the H1-B visa program as “very bad for business, bad for our workers.”

Ted Bergh, the chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, which administers the MARCC ID program, explained their involvement as “we welcome the stranger and protect the vulnerable. That’s what our faith calls us to do.”

That formulation, however, reveals a second, more long-standing, reality that the New Cincinnatians initiative is countering. Cincinnati has been out of the mainstream experience of immigration for over 150 years and in the process we have lost our ability to “welcome the stranger.”

Cincinnatians love to talk about our German and Irish heritage. Those two groups certainly drove Cincinnati’s unprecedented growth between 1835 and 1860. On the eve of the Civil War Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the nation with more than 47 percent of its residents foreign-born.

Immigration to the U.S. stalled with the outbreak of the Civil War. When it resumed in the early 1880s, immigrants from northern and western Europe were only a trickle compared to the “living Niagara” of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe—Poles, Italians, Greeks, Czechs, Slovaks and others. The vast majority of those newcomers went to cities in the East and along the Great Lakes. Few made Cincinnati, with its mature and slow growth economy, their destination.

Of course some Italians came (or we wouldn’t have LaRosa’s Pizza) and some Greeks came (or we wouldn’t have Skyline Chili), but they did not come in the numbers that reorganized Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee into checkerboards of ethnic neighborhoods.

In 1921 the Cincinnati Times-Star proudly editorialized that Cincinnati was the “most American city in the North.” Community leaders embraced the region’s homogeneity that did not have to deal with the challenges of integrating new immigrants.

The result is that by 2009 metropolitan Cincinnati had only 3 percent foreign born, the lowest proportion of any of the country’s 25 largest metro regions. Diversity came in two colors and one language.

So what’s the problem? Low foreign-born population is bad for the economy.

Immigrants by definition are risk takers and form businesses that create jobs at a much higher rate than the native-born population. The recent Partnership for a New American Economy study found that although immigrants make up only 3.5 percent of our region, they own 7.9 percent of all business, including 21 percent of Main Street businesses. On a national level, Inc. Magazine recently reported that between “1996 to 2011, the business startup rate of immigrants increased by more than 50 percent, while the native-born startup rate declined by 10 percent, to a 30-year low.” If we do not have immigrants, we are operating at a disadvantage.

After 140 years of being out of the mainstream of a basic American experience, Cincinnatians have lost the skills and infrastructure to “welcome the newcomer.” Re-learning those skills and rebuilding that infrastructure may allow Cincinnati to recapture the spirit of innovation and social flexibility that once made this region an aggressive urban competitor.