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Baltimore opens arms, outreach to immigrants

Jose Portillo left his native El Salvador 20 years ago for Baltimore and a better life. When his daughter followed 10 years later, she opened a business in the city's Spanish Town, but chose to live in Baltimore County.

"Here [in the city] the houses are too close," said Sinia Zelaya, 30, who has been trying to persuade her father to move out of the city and in with her since he was robbed at gunpoint three months ago. "It's not too safe."

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Long a magnet for immigrants, Baltimore has failed to attract them in recent decades as the suburbs and other cities have become more appealing.

That's a problem, say local leaders, who believe immigration would bring more businesses, diversity and people to a city that has been shrinking for the past half-century.

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To help change that, the city recently hired someone whose job description reads something like the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: Bring us your tired, your poor, your entrepreneurial population-boosters.

Elizabeth Beery Adams is the city's immigrant support and outreach coordinator, a position that falls under the Mayor's Office of Community Investment.

"If cities want to grow and expand, they need to appeal to immigrants," said David Costello, director of the Office of Community Investment. "They often come with resources and tremendous amounts of energy, and they do often come with skills. Communities really grow and develop around these new residents."

Baltimore is hardly the only shrinking city that sees immigrants as a key to its salvation. The faded mill town of Utica, N.Y., has been getting an infusion of people and diversity since 1979, when a group of clergy opened a refugee resettlement center, said Ellen Kraly, a Colgate University demographer who has been studying the phenomenon.

More than 10,000 refugees - Indo-Chinese, Russians, Poles, Haitians, Bosnians - have settled in the city of 61,000. Their arrival has presented challenges for schools and social services, Kraly said, but the benefits have been greater: reclaiming more than 500 homes in a distressed part of town and persuading some small manufacturing firms to stay because the refugees are stable, motivated workers.

"It really dramatically changed the learning experience and the culture and the feel of this place," she said. "It's great."

Not everyone is convinced that immigration is the answer.

James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park who has written several books on immigration, said Baltimore should concentrate on helping its many poor, unemployed citizens.

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"What about the native workers that are unemployed there?" he said. "It's not like you've got full employment. I am astonished that they would do this."

People involved in the effort, which could include home-buying workshops, social service outreach and recruitment of immigrants who live in the Washington area, say it will do nothing to hurt people who already live in Baltimore.

"There's enough [work] to go around," said Cindy Fickes, who directs immigration legal services for Catholic Charities.

City leaders hope to attract more people like Enrique Tapia, a native of Ecuador and father of three, who recently opened La Cazuela restaurant on Eastern Avenue.

After washing dishes and cooking in area restaurants for eight years, Tapia, 45, felt he was ready to open a place of his own. Tapia and his wife, Marina, opened a small restaurant that features native dishes in November.

But it wasn't easy.

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It took Tapia eight months to convert a vacant rowhouse into a restaurant, with city health and building inspectors dragging out the process, he said.

"It's a little bit difficult to open a business in this city," Tapia said. "It's not like New York. It's not like New Jersey."

When Tapia was about to open, he called to arrange a health inspection and was told that no one would be available for three weeks.

Tapia called Jose O. Ruiz, Mayor Martin O'Malley's liaison to the Hispanic community. Ruiz got an inspector out that day, Tapia said.

That kind of support is what Adams will offer to immigrants of all backgrounds. By helping immigrants who are already here, she will try to get the word out that Baltimore is a good place to settle.

That has not been the message for many years.

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Less than 6 percent of Baltimore's population is foreign-born, about half the national average. The number of immigrants who make their home here has held fairly steady at about 30,000 for the past 30 years, according to 2000 census figures.

But the number of immigrants living in Baltimore suburbs increased from about 30,000 in 1970 to 117,000 in 2000, said Audrey Singer, visiting fellow at the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, part of The Brookings Institution in Washington.

Part of the reason is the suburbanization of immigration nationwide, with newcomers bypassing many cities. Concerns about urban crime and schools are behind the trend, along with the shift of many jobs from central cities and the presence of affordable housing in suburbs, she said. Some of the more recent immigrants, particularly Asians, have greater financial resources than newcomers who arrived at the turn of the last century.

"Europeans moved to central cities. Now we're getting people going straight to the suburbs," Singer said.

That could change in Baltimore if immigrants such as Tapia tell others that the city is a good place to live. It's hardly paradise, he said. He feels he has to send his children to Catholic schools because he thinks the local ones are poor.

But he believes Baltimore is a good place for his family. He does not regret selling his house and small farm in Ecuador to buy the restaurant. He had held onto the property for years for the sake of his children, but he believes that need no longer exists.

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"The future for them is here," he said.


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