Baltimore honors past by building a future with immigrants | COMMENTARY

Between 1868 and 1914, Baltimore’s immigration piers in Locust Point were the third most active in the country. Charm City was known as an economic and cultural hub — a vision of the possibility available to the more than 1.2 million new immigrants that would land on our shores.

More than a century after the closing of the piers, we can still point to the incredible influence immigrants have had on the city and society at large — it was a German immigrant in Baltimore who revolutionized printing with the invention of the Linotype machine; an Irish immigrant who introduced the United States to the smallpox vaccine; and a Jewish immigrant, Gustav Brunn, who created what some would consider Baltimore’s greatest contribution to the world: Old Bay Seasoning.


Despite their contributions, however, Baltimore’s immigrant population soon became the target of an increasingly popular anti-immigration movement called the “Know Nothing” party. The Know-Nothings’ platform, as Baltimore magazine notes in their “City of Immigrants” feature, “blamed German and Irish immigrants for driving up poverty and crime rates” and hoped to “[restore] their vision of what American should look like” by creating harsh immigration laws and standards for citizenship, in turn pitting new Americans against each other and forcing job competition, poor working conditions and prejudices that served to benefit the wealthy.

Sound familiar?


The war on immigrants is nothing new. But its ramifications for our economy, both local and national, are reflected in every “Now Hiring” sign seen on so many storefronts.

Today, Baltimore — like cities across the country — faces a severe labor shortage, posing significant challenges to successful economic recovery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 9.3 million job openings across the U.S.— the highest number on record. There are 250,000 jobs available on the Maryland Workforce Exchange alone. Industries such as crabbing and dairy farming are struggling to find the manpower they need to continue to operate, let alone to thrive. All the while, U.S. birth and fertility rates have been on a steady decline, and Baltimore’s population is the lowest in a century, having lost over 27,000 residents in the last decade.

If we want to build back Baltimore, our state and our nation, the solution is clear: We must return to our roots of welcome.

Know-Nothings past and present would have us believe that immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans and depress wages across industries. But it’s just not true. Immigrants fill jobs that would otherwise go unfilled — and not only that, they create jobs.

Research shows that immigrants are 80% more likely than native workers to become entrepreneurs. Immigrant-owned businesses, like R&R Taqueria and Fleur de Lis, make up 21% of Baltimore’s businesses — not to mention that immigrants stimulate the local economy by spending their earnings on local goods and services. In Baltimore alone, immigrant households contribute $1 billion in combined state and local taxes and have an estimated $7.7 billion in spending power.

Immigrants make Baltimore better, and now it’s the city’s turn to make Baltimore better for immigrants. We need to rebrand ourselves as we did in 1868 — a hub of welcome and opportunity. We must offer immigrants the opportunity to participate in our city’s benefits, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Homeownership Assistance Program and economic development programs; we must incentivize companies that hire refugees and immigrants; and we must continue to develop immigrant-forward infrastructure, building on the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

But above all, we must restore our city’s commitment to welcome and opportunity. The organization I lead, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, stands ready to welcome new Americans with open arms, just as we have for more than 80 years, but we cannot do it alone. By remembering our roots and those who helped make Baltimore the city we love today, we have the keys to unlock a new era — not just of economic prosperity, but of cultural vibrancy, community resilience, and urban vitality.

Who knows? The next immigrant to call Baltimore home could create something even better than Old Bay.


Krish O’Mara Vignarajah ( is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (Twitter: @LIRSorg). She previously served in the Obama White House as policy director for first lady Michelle Obama and at the State Department as senior adviser under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry.