European immigrants helped build the Ohio and Erie Canal and rail networks in Cleveland in the late 1820s, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History at Case Western Reserve University. Since then, the need for workers has spurred immigration and migration to the city.
“It’s the workforce that drives this,” said John Grabowski, associate professor of applied history at Case Western Reserve University and senior vice president for research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
The most substantial and diverse migration to Cleveland occurred from 1870-1914, during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Grabowski said.
At the time, many Southern and Eastern Europeans fled their homes because of land shortages, increased military conscription and persecutions, particularly of Jews. The lure of jobs created a powerful pull to Cleveland, leading the city’s population to quickly double as immigrants filled new jobs in emerging industries, especially steel, making Cleveland the fifth-largest U.S. city in 1920.
Not everyone was happy about the flood of immigrants, despite industries needing the workers. “We forget, a lot of people coming in were not welcome,” mostly because of ethnic or economic rivalries, Grabowski noted.
During World War I, tens of thousands of African Americans migrated from the South for jobs here at a time when the United States restricted immigrants from Eastern Europe and China.
Later, in 1965, the United States opened its doors, creating an immigration quota system that is largely unchanged today. “The things that got you in were having a job skill that Americans don’t have or reuniting a family,” Grabowski said.
Partly as a result, the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population reached a 100-year high of 13.7% in 2016, wrote William H. Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in a September 2018 blog post.
But in the Cleveland metropolitan area, the percentage of native-born to foreign-born was around half that — about 6% — in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That disparity caused some institutions, such as Global Cleveland, to sound the alarm. If Cleveland fails to attract its share of immigrants, it could be left in the economic dust.