"There's not much we've been able to do because there's a language issue," Johnson said. She suspects that many of her new neighbors are not in the country legally and therefore shy away from community meetings or other public events.

Longtime residents have raised concerns about large numbers of immigrants living in rental units intended for a few, as well as a lack of street parking and a rise in rowdy conduct, Johnson said. The community's public school resources, she said, have been strained by accommodating students who speak Spanish.

Though city officials are still developing plans to attract immigrants, some existing policies could work in Baltimore's favor. In mid-2010, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the federal "Secure Communities" program. Under the program, an arrested person's fingerprints are forwarded to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine whether he or she is subject to deportation.

At the beginning of December, Baltimore became one of two places in the country to test a more lenient immigration policy that allows some deportation actions to be halted. Such policies have sparked criticism.

"When they use the term immigrants, it's a euphemism for illegal aliens," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties. He is concerned that increased immigration to the city would displace native residents from low-skill jobs, stretch health care and education systems, and increase crime.

"When you put out the welcome mat, you are opening yourself up to more violence, more crime and more drugs," he said.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said immigration is a federal issue, "not a debate being driven on the ground here in Baltimore."

Rawlings-Blake, he said, is working on many fronts to improve the city for all people, including continuing to reduce crime and improve educational infrastructure, develop the housing stock and reduce property taxes, and encourage business development.

"We're proud to have a diverse city," he said. "All people are welcome here."

Suburban counties could threaten Baltimore's future gains. For instance, Baltimore County's immigrant population has risen from 4.5 percent in 1990 to more than 10 percent in 2010, well over the city's immigrant concentration.

Melba Ordonez, a Salvadoran immigrant visiting Centro de la Comunidad last week for assistance in renewing her husband's work permit, was drawn to Baltimore more than a decade ago by relatives. After a few years, they bought a house in Middle River — drawn by the same attraction that has lured many other families to suburban counties.

"The schools," she said. "We moved out of the city for the schools."

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

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