Raiza Boadas considers herself fortunate to have found her way from Venezuela to Dundalk.
In 2019, Boadas was driven from her home country amid mass protests to remove President Nicolás Maduro. In an interview, she described through an interpreter receiving death threats from Maduro’s government for feeding protesters outside her apartment. If she returns, she said, they’ll kill her.
She found a home with her son in Baltimore County. She leaned on a strong network of family and friends and an immigrant services provider, CASA de Maryland, based in Baltimore City, to adjust to her new life.
Now a volunteer with CASA, she’s seen firsthand how other first-generation families struggled to get by in the county, where until recently, there were no centralized immigration services.
Officials hope to meet an increasing need among many of the 106,000 county residents who are immigrants, according to the census. Until now, they have been forced to seek assistance outside the county in finding food and housing, enrolling children in school and obtaining legal aid.
To that end, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. created the county’s first immigration affairs coordinator position and tapped Giuliana Valencia-Banks to fill it.
Valencia-Banks formerly worked at the Esperanza Center, a city-based program operated by Catholic Charities of Baltimore that provides free legal services and health care to immigrants, and saw there the county’s gaps in service. Up to 40% of calls to the Esperanza Center come from county residents, she said. Many face language barriers and struggle to access interpreter services.
The need is persistent: CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization that serves Central Maryland jurisdictions, says 30% of its members live in Baltimore County. The Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and city-based service providers say as many as 50% of their calls for aid come from county residents.
The city, where 9% of the population are immigrants, often can’t help.
“When we do get contacted by someone from the county, there are very few places where we can refer them,” said Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, who heads the city Office of Immigrant Affairs that she helped found in 2013.
One in eight county residents is an immigrant, according to census data, a figure that grew by 19% over the past decade. The percentage of foreign-born residents has nearly tripled since 1990.
Immigrant communities are scattered across the county, with pockets from Owings Mills and Reisterstown to Cockeysville to Middle River and Dundalk, according to county data.
Those who emigrate to the Baltimore suburbs are most likely to be from Nigeria, Kenya, El Salvador, the Philippines, India, China and South Korea, according to census data provided by the county. But their most recent residence is often Baltimore City: They snap up suburban homes as they find higher-paying jobs, said Patricia Jones, executive director of the Immigration Outreach Service Center.
“We have watched them move from the city to the county — and they kept coming back to us,” she said of her Baltimore-based group, which provides translation services, legal aid and tutoring, and offers financial and computer literacy programs.
In part, that’s because the county has lacked a way for residents seeking immigrant services — often related to work, affordable housing and food access, Jones said.
“With the new immigrant affairs coordinator, this will make a big change for our folks in the county,” Jones said.
Valencia-Banks, who moved from Peru to Florida with her family when she was 6, started with the county in mid-November. She plans to hold roundtables with community groups, nonprofit organizations and immigrant service providers to glean further information about residents’ needs. She wants to use Spanish-speaking media outlets to better disseminate information — a critical issue for non-English speakers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Much of her work will involve shaping “culturally responsive” programming. In immediate terms, that means making county programs accessible to non-English speakers and noncitizens, she said.
She also plans to promote the economic development and integration of immigrant communities and foster public and private partnerships with nonprofit groups, businesses, houses of worship, neighborhood associations and advocacy organizations to strengthen their development and resolve constituent service requests.
Valencia-Banks works out of the county’s Office of Community and Engagement with a $70,000 annual salary.
“Immediately, there will be a lot of fires to put out,” Rodriguez-Lima said, noting the pandemic has made life even more stressful for many first-generation Americans.
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Boadas said she’s seen residents who have not reached out for help because there aren’t enough interpreters, which she believes is one of the most important needs.
Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, executive director of CASA de Maryland, hopes the new position will lead to more direct collaboration with CASA. In the city, for instance, the organization works in tandem with the immigrant affairs office to manage cases. That proved crucial during the pandemic, when many foreign-born families sought eviction prevention aid.
That direct connection helped immigrant families in the city that applied for rental assistance receive aid more quickly than those in Baltimore County because immigrant service providers could “directly advocate” for their needs and identify barriers, Walther-Rodriguez said.
Few Maryland counties offer centralized immigration services. State lawmakers in 2021 created the Governor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, which will focus on career placement, programs that teach English and the citizenship naturalization processes for Maryland’s roughly 15% foreign-born population.
It’s a hefty workload for an office of one in Baltimore County. Rodriguez-Lima, by contrast, leads a city office of five employees for a smaller immigration population.
But creating and filling the position may lead to a point person who can design the program, remove barriers and advocate for more public funding and partnerships, Rodriguez-Lima said.
“The best way to tackle it is [to] understand the needs of communities across the board,” she added. “Not just the needs of Latinos, of Asians, but what are the overarching needs of immigrants and refugees overall? And use that to bring different groups together.”