By Mary Wisniewski

(Reuters) - While Alabama and other states have passed tough new laws targeting illegal immigrants, Dayton, Ohio, has taken another route -- rolling out the welcome mat for legal immigrants as a way to boost the community.

Dayton approved a plan to become an immigrant-friendly city last week by a 4-0 City Commission vote. Human Relations Council Director Tom Wahlrab said the plan aimed to help legal immigrants thrive by helping them navigate the system, not to attract illegal immigrants.

"When folks come, we'd like to welcome them. We'd like to let them know what their resources are to learn English," Wahlrab said. "We want to let them know they have a part in our community."

A Brookings Institution report on immigration trends released on Thursday noted that cities which want to stem population loss, like Detroit or Cleveland, were more likely to welcome immigrants "with open arms." Dayton's population has dropped from about 166,000 in 2000 to 141,500 in 2010.

"We have seen that immigrants who are here already are more likely to start small businesses. They are buying houses, fixing those houses, taking care of their property," said Francisco Pelaez, Hispanic Missionary Pastor for Dayton's College Hill Community Church.

"We want to help this continue. We want to pull down the barriers they are facing because it's not always easy to navigate the system."

Recommendations in the plan for a more immigrant-friendly city include creating an international marketplace and increasing interpretation services and the availability of English classes.

Jamie Longazel, sociology professor at the University of Dayton, said such a plan should be applauded in an era when so many cities and states are passing sweeping legislation targeting illegal immigration. But he warned that programs that encourage redevelopment should be inclusive, so that all Dayton citizens can thrive.

"I think they should do this in as inclusive a way as they possibly can," Longazel said.

(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)