City lacks serious effort in recruiting immigrants

April 28, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

THE DECADE is already 23 percent over, and Baltimore has done next to nothing to recharge itself the only way it can, by recruiting immigrant residents.

The ranks of Bostonians, Chicagoans, Minneapolitans and even Grand Rapidians (Michigan) grew in the 1990s thanks to infusions of Latin, Asian, African and European newcomers. But at this rate, Baltimore's census results for 2010 will show the same thing they did for 2000: less population, less employment and less hope for a city once built by people born across the sea.

Mayor Martin O'Malley seems more concerned with the harm immigrants can inflict on Baltimore as potential terrorists than the good they can bring as tenants, homeowners, taxpayers, workers and neighbors.

As far as I can tell from talks with city officials, Baltimore's pro-immigrant campaign so far consists of turning a Fells Point library branch into a Latino center; recruiting Prince George's County Hispanics via radio ads; working with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; giving a "Spanish flavor" to the streetscape at Broadway and Fleet Street; and not a whole lot more.

Wooing immigrants hard is not optional for Baltimore.

Some analysts have predicted the city will start to fill back up once middle-class baby boomers finish educating their children in the suburbs and seek the superior theater, music, museums, food and architecture of the city. Or maybe Washington housing will become so expensive that Baltimore will thrive as a D.C. commuter satellite.

Empty-nesters and commuters will help. But the city will not be saved by native yuppies drinking vanilla lattes at Barnes & Noble.

"The only cities that you could conceivably call like Baltimore that are growing are growing through immigration," says Bruce Morrison, a former congressman studying how immigrants can help the city.

"It is not a choice," says Morrison, once chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "If Baltimore is going to grow, it's going to grow through immigration. If it doesn't involve immigration, it's not going to grow."

Morrison's study, commissioned by Baltimore's Abell Foundation, won't be finished until next month, which is perhaps one reason O'Malley has been slow on this issue. Another excuse is that it's not clear what, exactly, cities should do to lure immigrants.

The making of a little Vietnam, a little El Salvador or a little Ghana in urban America is such a chain of happenstance and imponderables that nobody has figured out how to bottle and sell it.

It is clear that immigrant residents beget immigrant residents. Once a cluster of people from another land throws out a U.S anchor, the group tends to attract friends and family to the same neighborhood. But how to plant a cluster-seed in the first place and how to get existing immigrant communities to grow more quickly is still largely a mystery and may remain one.

It's a free country, after all. That's what draws immigrants, and it means authorities can't resettle the newcomers in whatever place happens to be fiscally and politically convenient.

Baltimore is correct to focus on perhaps its two biggest enclaves of recent immigrants, Spanish Town near Fells Point and the Russian Jewish community in the northwest city.

Laurie B. Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic and community development, talks about working with those groups and "identifying how we can help them build a stronger sense of community. They're our best salespeople," she adds. "If they believe in the city, if they like the city, they're going to attract other friends and relatives."

Sure, but that's not exactly shattering the paradigms of population replenishment, which is what Baltimore needs.

O'Malley told Congress recently that Baltimore will have spent more than $10 million on anti-terrorism costs when the fiscal year ends in June. The Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, head of Boston's Office of New Bostonians, told me her budget is a little over $300,000.

With a staff of five, Tan's department sponsors job fairs, registers immigrant voters, furnishes interpreters, just added 550 slots for English language classes and serves as a symbol of Boston's welcome for immigrants from dozens of nations.

An Office of New Baltimoreans, run by a William Donald Schaefer go-getter type, could do even more. Working with the existing Maryland Office of New Americans, it could forge closer ties with Catholic Relief Services and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, both based in Baltimore, to resettle clients here.

It could reach out to U.S. consulates and form sister-city relationships in key immigration gateway countries. Maybe it could provide incentives to existing residents for recruiting friends and relatives and to foreign students for settling in the city after graduation.

Baltimore lost 12 percent of its people in the 1990s. The United States' fastest-growing ethnic groups, Hispanics and Asians, make up less than 4 percent of the city's population. Urban analyst David Rusk has said Baltimore is past "the point of no return" demographically and economically. Prove him wrong.

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