Reverse Baltimore's population slide: Bring on the immigrants

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Immigrants line up hoping for admission to the United States.

Baltimore had a net loss of some 7,000 residents between the summer of 2017 and the summer of 2018, according to the latest Census Bureau estimate. That’s the biggest single-year loss in nearly two decades, the fourth consecutive annual loss since 2015 — one of the worst years in the long life of the city — and it’s bad news, but not surprising news.

There are many reasons for it: An insane rate of shootings and homicides; the continued movement of families to the suburbs, something reflected in declining school enrollment; the persistent image of lawlessness since the April 2015 unrest; the shortage of police officers, low morale among cops who remain on the job, the turnover among commissioners; weak or uneven political leadership, and, as always, a property tax rate double the rate in the counties.


And we didn’t even know about the current mayor-on-leave’s dealings with her “Healthy Holly” books until last month. So you can add that mess to the mix.

Despite the impressive number of new residential buildings, and the rise of Harbor East, despite all the stories about investment, there is still a lack of the big, transformative development Baltimore needs in areas that have been neglected for a long time, particularly on the west side. The Maryland governor’s decision in 2015 to kill the Red Line light rail system and, the next year, to halt the State Center redevelopment — both multibillion-dollar projects, both important to the west side — cannot be ignored when you’re looking at investment and confidence in the city. If you build or widen roads in the suburbs, that’s where you’ll see more development. Knocking down empty rowhouses in Baltimore might seem like a good idea, but without a development plan in place, it’s not much of a strategy for reversing population loss.


So, what is?

Obviously, reducing crime is the top priority in creating more confidence in Baltimore as a place to live. Assuming the new police commissioner can achieve some progress in making the city safer, how does Baltimore grow again? How does it attract more residents than it loses? I’m going to examine some ideas in this space today and over the coming weeks, and take a harder look at what works, including some initiatives out of City Hall that show promise.

Feel free to email me with your thoughts, but please: No haters. I understand that some people want nothing to do with Baltimore now, and while I think that’s as bad for you as it is for the city, I won’t argue or entertain your doomsday predictions anymore. I can’t. There isn’t time. It’s one thing to describe familiar problems, quite another to offer solutions or to cite something that works and needs more exposure.

I’ll start today with immigrants and immigration.

President Trump would like to ship Central American migrants from the southwestern border to sanctuary cities, but his motives are driven by cynical politics and “owning the libs,” not with any real desire to solve a problem in a logical and humane way. Still, Trump aside, there’s something in this for Baltimore.

Recruiting and welcoming immigrants was the best idea former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had. So let’s go. Let’s renew that effort, with gusto. Why not create a city-supported group to interview migrant families at the border and suggest they settle here? There are several Maryland-based, immigrant-support organizations that could help with that effort. The state’s congressional delegation could say to the Trump administration: OK, we’ll take some of the migrant families held at the border, but we need federal subsidies for transportation, housing, job placement, public education for children and language classes for adults.

Why not set aside some city-owned, abandoned rowhouses and sell them to immigrant families that, like local families already in the program, establish stable incomes and agree to work with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake to renovate and inhabit them? Follow Baltimore’s previous dollar-house model: Require families who get this benefit to live in the home for at least five years and, further, to enroll their kids in city schools.

Before I leave this idea to be trashed by those who dismiss immigrants as a further burden on the city, please note: Employed immigrants who are eligible for, or already granted, temporary legal status pay billions of dollars in taxes to the federal and state governments every year. A new study from the University of Southern California puts Maryland in the top 10 of states with the highest levels of household income and tax contributions from Dreamers and others who have, or may be eligible for, temporary protection under present and proposed federal laws. Many of these people are still threatened with deportation and currently have no way to collect benefits from the Social Security Administration. Real estate companies, banks and landlords, take note: The study also found that Maryland ranks fifth nationally in mortgage and rent payments from the same immigrant households.


Throughout the country, there are also undocumented workers who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, issued by the Internal Revenue Service. They have accounted for billions more in taxes nationally and several million annually in Maryland.

Instead of fearing and demonizing them, we need to understand and embrace the role immigrants play in the workforce as baby boomers age out of it, and in cities, like Baltimore, that need new taxpayers.