Getting started

November 23, 2003

FLAVIA JIMENEZ, a Peruvian living in Montgomery County, talks of the intense feeling of powerlessness that is so familiar to immigrants. Employers pay less than the minimum wage, or nothing at all. Landlords gouge. There seems to be nowhere to turn. Language is a barrier, and the laws can be inexplicable.

That's why immigrants follow other immigrants.

That's why Ms. Jimenez went to Montgomery County; someone there already knows the ropes.

That's why rural Mexicans flock to cities such as Oakland, Calif.; if you're a campesino, you'll stick out a lot less in Oakland than you will on Harford Road.

And that, in turn, is why the number of housing permits issued in, for instance, Elizabeth, N.J., quadrupled between 1997 and 2001 - because immigration into Elizabeth, already a largely Hispanic city, is snowballing.

And that's why David Costello, who's overseeing a mayoral task force on ways to attract immigrants to Baltimore, has such a tough job ahead of him.

But it's not an impossible one - and it may be vital to the city's future.

Baltimore has a tiny number of immigrants, just 6 percent of the city's population, compared with 28 percent in Montgomery County, 45 percent in Queens, N.Y., and 61 percent in Miami. Last week, this newspaper argued that the lack of immigrants poses a real threat to Baltimore. Immigrants do not solve all problems, by any means, but they do bring energy, ambition and creativity back to city life. Yet attracting sufficient numbers of immigrants to Baltimore will require more than good intentions on the part of the city's leaders.

A national debate over immigration policy is gathering steam - a debate that is welcome, but only indirectly related to the issues Baltimore must face. One way or another, immigrants will still be finding their way to the United States; the question here is, how many will choose Baltimore?

The city must build on its strengths. Two neighborhoods account for the bulk of immigrants: the area along Broadway north of Fells Point, which has become a Central American community, and Northwest Baltimore, which is home to Hispanics and Russians. There are smaller concentrations elsewhere of Nigerians, Jamaicans and Vietnamese.

It is among those immigrants already here that the word must be spread: Baltimore is a good place to come. There is already some useful work being done on that score. St. Joseph's Hospital sends a health screening van to Broadway twice a week. Catholic Charities runs a legal center, and provides language classes. Other nonprofit groups are active there and in Northwest Baltimore.

But more would be better. The police are beginning to hire Hispanic officers, have given basic Spanish lessons to others, and plan to increase their roster of on-call translators, says Lt. Richard A. Hite Jr. of the community affairs division - yet immigrants almost universally complain about what seems to them to be police indifference.

Few public services are provided in any language except English. It's difficult to get a driver's license, it's difficult to pay taxes, it's difficult to open a store. The city should let immigrants know what to expect here, in their own language - that, for instance, people in a car have to wear seat belts, or they will be stopped by the police.

Businesses have a key role to play - maybe the central role. In some small Midwestern cities, it is business that recruits immigrants - directly. Businesses here should follow that lead. They should consider hiring Spanish-speaking supervisors. Companies and nonprofits alike should look ahead as well, and think about the kinds of career training that would help immigrants move out of dead-end jobs.

But at the same time, immigrants must feel they have somewhere to turn if they are exploited. When immigrants are ill-paid and ill-treated, that's bad for everyone - because that sort of exploitation exerts pressure throughout the local economy to hold wages down and keep working conditions poor. Austin, Texas, has started a city-run program to crack down on employers who take advantage of immigrants; Baltimore should learn from this example.

And who will move here?

Realistically, most will be Latinos. Baltimore is at a disadvantage since there are already so many feasible destinations for Latin Americans, but this is where the flood is coming from. There are, for instance, more displaced people in Colombia - 3 million - than in any other country except Sudan. Every hurricane in Honduras sends more people northward.

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