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Immigrants key to reaching mayor's population goal

Foreign-born residents necessary for growth, experts say

January 07, 2012|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

Meanwhile, hundreds of African immigrants, including many refugees, have put down roots in the northeast corner of the city. The International Rescue Committee, which has a resettlement center in Baltimore, estimates that over the past 10 years more than 3,000 refugees and roughly 1,000 asylum-seekers have moved to the city. The group has helped nearly 1,000 people from Bhutan and resettled hundreds from Burma, among other countries.

There has been an influx of Asian immigrants in the neighborhoods of Keswick, Tuscany-Canterbury and Evergreen. The foreign-born residents in those neighborhoods, north of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, are likely drawn by learning and high-skill job opportunities, experts say.

It's clear to Nelson Ortega, executive director of Centro de la Comunidad, that the potential for jobs is the reason that immigrants — regardless of education or skill level — are moving to Baltimore. Since 2002, he said, the center has counseled about 11,000 people, and the largest part of the assistance went to helping people find employment.

Baltimore lagging behind neighbors

Philadelphia, like Baltimore, suffered through a half-century of population loss. But during the past decade it began growing again.

"Philadelphia wasn't thought of as an immigrant hub 10 years ago, but it is now," said Randy Capps, a senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "There's no reason to think that Baltimore can't make the same shift, with a stronger economy and safer environment."

Philadelphia grew by about 8,500 people between 2000 and 2010 — despite the continued loss of native-born residents — keeping the population slightly over 1.5 million.

"There were tremendous increases in the Latino and Asian populations, and we presume that comes predominantly from immigration," said Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for planning and economic development. The Census Bureau estimates that the city has 69,000 Asian and 51,000 Latin American immigrants.

Greenberger said he and Mayor Michael Nutter have made an effort to attend festivals and events popular with immigrant groups to make them feel welcome. And the city is trying to ease communication problems for small-business owners by having AmeriCorps volunteers with language skills — including Russian, Mandarin and Spanish — available.

"It's like a concierge service to help them deal with whatever problems they may encounter while running their business in the community," Greenberger said. The goal is to help new immigrants acclimate, with the hope that by the second generation those services will not be necessary.

Such "welcome centers," where, for instance, skilled immigrants can get information about becoming credentialed in various fields and parents can enroll children in school, are becoming more common in metropolitan areas, Capps said.

Harriet Tregoning, the District of Columbia's planning director and previously Maryland's secretary of planning under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, was struck by Baltimore's failure to attract immigrants during the 1990s, because Maryland had significant immigrant growth outside the city.

"It was Baltimore," she said. "Those are efforts that need to be made at a local level."

Rawlings-Blake's plan, she said, is not unrealistic if "people come, have a good experience and write home. … The city needs to look at who is coming and try to help them have a good experience."

'Initial phases'

The importance of courting immigrants has been noted in Baltimore since at least 2002, when the Abell Foundation released a report that concluded: "Growth comes from immigrants or not at all."

Stosur, Baltimore's planning director, said city officials are still developing strategies to reach Rawlings-Blake's goal of attracting 10,000 families — or 22,000 people. He hopes that with "targeted research" city administrators can work with organizations like the Abell Foundation to develop a plan that will increase the immigrant population, retain young people and draw older people looking to retire in a city setting.

Capps, the demographer, said some cities have opened offices dedicated to immigrant affairs, which set policy and establish a list of available resources, both public and private — such as the services offered by Centro de la Comunidad.

The Patterson Park Neighborhood Association has tried to make immigrants feel welcome by printing notices and newsletters in Spanish as well as English, said the group's leader, Heather Hurley.

"How can we expect all of our neighbors to come out for cleanups if we don't even communicate with them?" she said. The association recently received a grant to pay a translator to be present at meetings, she said.

Sandra Johnson, president of the Falstaff Improvement Association, said her Northwest Baltimore community has not made the same adjustments after a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants moved in.

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