Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's report on strategies to attract immigrants to Baltimore offers dozens of recommendations, but for those who are not immigrants or connected to the immigrant community, it may raise two big questions. First, at a time when the national debate about immigration policy focuses on what to do about those who entered the country illegally, the report makes no distinction whatsoever between immigrants who are citizens, those who are legal aliens or those who have no documentation at all. Is that in our best interests? And second, given that the existing population of Baltimore has challenges enough of its own, why should the city be devoting resources to helping those who don't even live here yet?
The answer to the first question is that what Baltimore stands to gain from an influx of immigrants does not much depend on their legal status. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has set a goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade, and in terms of securing Baltimore's future vibrancy, there can be no greater ambition. More people means a more vibrant economy, fewer vacant houses and greater investment that would have spill-over effects on crime, education and any number of other challenges Baltimore faces.
Immigrants are a natural place to look for population growth, both because the city's historical identity as a landing place for those from other countries and because the number of immigrants here has been on the upswing in recent years. After hitting a low of 23,467 in the 1990 Census, the number of foreign born city residents jumped back to more than 44,000 in 2010 — and that's only about half of what it once was. Baltimore's immigrants are predominantly from Latin America, but the city also has substantial Asian and African populations.
And contrary to the notion that immigrants — documented or otherwise — are a drag on the economy, they have workforce participation rates significantly higher than Baltimore's native-born population and a lower unemployment rate. They pay taxes and stimulate the local economy. Moreover, their rate of business ownership is far higher than their share of the population would warrant; a 2012 report from the Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative found that immigrants made up 9 percent of Baltimore's population but 12 percent of the workforce and a remarkable 21 percent of business owners. Opponents of illegal immigration often contend that those who broke the nation's immigration laws are prone to crime, but the reality is that those who come to this country — through whatever means — are prone to entrepreneurship. Baltimore could certainly use more of that.
But what about the wisdom and fairness of expending effort to recruit new Baltimoreans rather than helping build up those who are already here? There's a good answer to that question, too, which is that the bulk of the steps the city is contemplating would be of use to residents whether they are immigrants or not, and those that are focused specifically on the needs of the non-native born population, at least in the initial phases of the plan, are quite modest.
Members of the task force that worked on the recommendations identified public safety as a major concern for potential new residents — just as it is for existing ones. Immigrants often come from countries where the police were not trusted, and sadly, that is often the case for native Baltimoreans as well — a perception that is fostered by cases of corruption or unnecessary use of force by officers. The recommendation that the Baltimore police "reiterate their role in protecting the public regardless of race, country of origin, language and immigrant status" should be something we can all agree on. And to the extent that those efforts focus specifically on immigrants, that's a benefit to the broader community as well. If an immigrant is reluctant to report a robbery out of distrust for the police, it masks the true extent of crime in the city and eliminates the possibility that the police can take a dangerous criminal off the streets.
Many of the other ideas would similarly benefit all groups — for example, making small business owners eligible for Live Near Your Work grants, expanding programs that inform renters of their legal rights, fostering a "rent to own" model through the city's Vacants to Value program, researching the needs of Baltimore's business community and developing web portals explaining how to access city services. The truly immigrant-specific parts of the plan include things the city should be doing anyway, such as establishing liaisons to immigrant communities and boosting translation services for city agencies, and they mainly involve relatively minimal investments.
The goal of attracting more immigrants to Baltimore would be of great benefit to the city as a whole, and so would the strategies for getting there. This effort deserves Baltimore's support.