Put out the welcome mat

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's inauguration speech last year laid out an ambitious goal of growing the city's population by 10,000 families over the next decade. Where are those approximately 22,000 new residents to come from? Clearly, the mayor hopes some suburban residents can be lured back by the attractions of city life. Others could be people from out of state who are moving to Maryland for the first time.

But if the experience of other cities is any guide, it seems almost certain that a substantial proportion of potential new Baltimore residents — as much 40 percent — will be immigrants. If the mayor's goal is to halt Baltimore's long-term population slide, the city needs to start planning how to attract and keep them here.

Immigration is one of the few bright spots in Baltimore's growth picture. The 2010 Census found a total of 44,000 foreign-born people living in Baltimore, about 7 percent of a total population and more than double the number living here 20 years ago. About 40 percent of them came from Latin American and the Caribbean, another 25 percent are from Asia and the Middle East, and 15 percent arrived here from Africa.

Were it not for these new arrivals, the city's population decline would have been even steeper, and today Baltimore's population would be under 600,000. That's why any program that aims to increase the number of people residing in the city must also take into account the need to nourish and expand its immigrant communities.

How to do that? Start with the assumption that immigrants want the same things for themselves and their families that native-born residents want: safe streets, good schools, affordable housing and economic opportunity, plus amenities such as parks, recreation centers, libraries and venues for art and entertainment.

Everyone wants a safe, clean place to live and work. That's why city officials are right to make reducing violent crime, improving the schools and lowering Baltimore's property tax rate the cornerstones of any effort to attract new residents.

But the Rawlings-Blake administration's insistence that it's not making an effort to target immigrants in particular is silly. Baltimore needs to develop a marketing strategy that specifically reaches out to foreign-born newcomers to the city. It's easy enough to outline the broad elements of such a campaign.

First, city officials must make clear that they welcome immigrant families, and that they reject the divisive rhetoric of officials in states like Arizona and Alabama, who have deliberately fostered a climate of suspicion and fear of foreign-born residents. In particular, city police must continue to develop relationships of trust with immigrant communities so that residents don't have to fear being arrested or deported if they report a crime or cooperate with an investigation.

Last year, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the federal "Secure Communities" program that allowed police to forward the fingerprints of people arrested to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in order to determine whether they were in the country legally. And Baltimore is one of only a couple of places in the country testing a more lenient immigration policy that allows some deportation actions to be halted in cases where illegal immigrants have not committed other crimes.

Fears that immigrants (legal or illegal) would displace native residents from jobs, overburden the health care and education systems or increase crime are overblown. The steps the city has taken are simply a clear statement that the xenophobic immigrant-bashing served up for partisan political advantage elsewhere can have no place among leaders of a Baltimore whose future depends on attracting an increasingly diverse population in terms of ethnicity, race, income and language.

Until now, city officials have been reluctant to speculate how many of the 10,000 new families they hope to attract might be immigrants. Their caution is understandable, because the multitude of decisions that lead people to settle in one place or another are notoriously difficult to predict.

The city should work with local nonprofit groups such as Live Baltimore, Centro de la Comunidad, Casa de Maryland and the International Rescue Committee, which already have developed strong ties to immigrant communities in Baltimore. They have the best handle on the factors that influence new arrivals' decision about where to put down roots. Sometimes it's as simple as having a relative or friend in the area that tips the balance, or word-of-mouth news that businesses are hiring.

Meanwhile, the city needs to make it easier for immigrants who bring their entrepreneurial skills to this country to open businesses. Navigating the red tape can be frustrating for any would-be business owner, but it could be particularly baffling for a newcomer to this country. Small businesses serve as engines of economic development in immigrant communities, and they also provide an anchor that encourages people to come and settle. The classic immigrant story is of people arriving from foreign lands and starting small businesses — restaurants, shops and stores — that cater to their fellow immigrants as well as provide employment for other new arrivals. That's a narrative city officials must make every effort to replicate here.

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