State's suburbs nurture diversity

The Baltimore Sun

Marylanders are increasingly diverse and better educated and endure commutes more grueling than those in nearly any other state in the nation, according to figures released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Immigrants are fueling population growth even in places not previously known for having ethnic enclaves. While the Washington suburbs have long been a magnet for thriving immigrant communities, the Baltimore region was home to about 200,000 foreign-born residents in 2006, an increase of nearly 38 percent since 2000.

"It's partially a spillover from the Washington metro area," said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding that relative affordability makes the Baltimore area attractive to new arrivals.

The influx is changing the character of metropolitan areas such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, which until recently did not attract immigrants in large numbers, she said.

"Their identity is changing," she said. "And these areas are catching up with that new identity as a place that is attractive to immigrants."

Unlike decades past, immigrants are bypassing cities for the suburbs, said Singer, who noted that the immigrant population of the Baltimore suburbs doubled in the 1990s.

Howard County's immigrant population increased 59 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to the new figures. And the jurisdiction boasts the state's highest percentage of immigrants from Asia - 53 percent.

The numbers are estimates from the bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, a mountain of data on such topics as education, housing costs and the numbers of non-English speakers. The statistical snapshot provides details for jurisdictions of 65,000 or more and, for the first time, includes people who live in group quarters, such as nursing homes, prisons and college dormitories.

Statewide, Maryland's immigrants claim birthplaces from around the globe: about a third are from Asia, a third from Latin America and 16 percent from Africa.

With racks of Bollywood movies for rent and Kashmiri tea for sale, the Marhaba Halal Meat and Grocery at East 32nd Street near Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore caters to the varied tastes of South Asians and people of Middle Eastern descent. Owner Irfan Ahmed, known to his customers as "Ali," said his clientele includes immigrants from India, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and his native Pakistan.

Most live in Baltimore County, but lately some customers travel from as far as the Eastern Shore for the shop's halal beef, goat and lamb, which is slaughtered according to Islamic law, said Ahmed.

Customers are stocking their freezers for today's start of Ramadan, the month when Muslims abstain from food or water during daylight hours.

"There was a real need for this store," said Ahmed, 30, who left Islamabad six years ago for southern New Jersey. An old high school friend, Irfan Kahn, told him of the opportunities in Baltimore and convinced him to move to White Marsh and open the store in Baltimore.

"It's an opportunity," Ahmed said. Meeting the needs of a diverse Asian community means reaching out to people from 34 different countries with scores of religions and hundreds of dialects, said David K. Lee, executive director of the governor's Commission on Asian Affairs.

"You have that 'model minority' myth, that all Asian-Americans are doing well in education and business," he said. "To a certain extent that is true. But there is also a segment of the Asian population that is living in poverty and not seeing as much success."

Still, many immigrants benefit from the state's strong job market and, like native-born Marylanders, many have earned advanced degrees.

More than a third - 37 percent - of Marylanders 25 years and older have a college degree, second only to Washington, D.C., with 46 percent, according to the survey. In 2000, 31 percent of Marylanders were college grads.

The state ranked second, also behind Washington, for the share of workers in professional careers - 26 percent.

Getting to those high-paying jobs means slogging through Baltimore Beltway traffic or spending more time on public transportation.

Maryland had the second-longest mean commuting time in the nation at 30.6 minutes. Only New York, with 30.9 minutes, was higher, although experts note the differences are not statistically significant.

Washington suburban commuters coped with the longest trips to work, with Charles County residents clocking in at 40 minutes.

In the Baltimore region, Carroll County commuters had the longest journeys - 35.4 minutes - and Anne Arundel County had the shortest with 28.2 minutes, six second less than Baltimore City.

Nearly half of all people who live in Carroll County commute to jobs outside the jurisdiction, and those who do inevitably hit traffic traveling along Interstate 795, said Harvey S. Bloom, director of transportation planning at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"You're not going to build your way out of it," Bloom said. "Building road capacity is not going to fix it. You need to try to get people to live closer to where they work, develop new transit connections; it's a full gamut."

Others have strongly encouraged public transportation as an alternative to clogged roads.

The Live Baltimore Home Center launched a campaign earlier this year to lure Washington residents to Baltimore, selling the MARC commuter rail line as a viable option for long commutes. Last month, it sponsored a happy hour at a Washington bar, calling the event "Keys to Buying in Charm City."

Live Baltimore has also been promoting the city to military employees in Virginia who will be affected by the military base realignment ordered by Congress.

"It's all about getting one less car on the highway," said Anna Custer, Live Baltimore's executive director, "and offering more options that are mass transit-oriented."

A caption accompanying an article yesterday on new U.S. census data misidentified the person in a photograph taken outside a grocery store that sells items from South Asia and the Middle East. The man in the photo is Irfan Kahn, a friend of store owner Irfan Ahmed.The Sun regrets the error.
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