What comes to mind when Mexican immigrant Elsa Garcia thinks of Baltimore's drawbacks?
"Basura. O las drogas," said the East Baltimore resident. "Trash. Or drugs."
Then, quickly, comes her list of Baltimore's pluses: Her husband has been able to find construction work. They have affordable housing. Police are not automatically suspicious of immigrants.
By and large, Garcia's perception of Baltimore is positive. It's the kind of opinion Baltimore must foster among immigrants, experts say, if the city is to turn around six decades of population decline. Baltimore's population, which peaked at just under 950,000 in 1950, slipped to roughly 621,000 by 2010. In the past decade, the city lost 30,000 residents.
At her inauguration, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set the goal of increasing the city's population by 22,000 people — 3.5 percent — in 10 years. Drawing native-born people back from the suburbs and working to retain current residents will help stem the population decline but cannot alone provide the number required to meet that goal, experts say.
According to demographers, cities like Baltimore that have experienced extreme population declines can start growing again only by embracing foreign-born residents. They say the city government and its residents should be prepared for the expansion of ethnic enclaves dominated by people from Latin America, Asia and Africa — a trend that helped Philadelphia and Washington reverse long slides.
To reach the mayor's goal, courting such immigrants has "definitely got to be a significant component of the strategy," said Thomas Stosur, director of the city's Planning Department. He thinks the "aggressive" goal is feasible as long as the economy continues to improve.
But that stance troubles some communities and politicians, who fear that many immigrants would come to Baltimore illegally, straining already scarce services. In Falstaff, for example, some longtime residents have complained about overcrowding and the difficulty of integrating people who do not speak English into community activities.
A new immigration boom
Garcia's elder daughter, Paola Catalan Garcia, 3, sat on her knee as a counselor at Centro de la Comunidad made phone calls. In late December, Garcia visited the Latino-focused social services organization near Patterson Park to secure health insurance for her 4-month-old.
Garcia came to the United States from Puebla, Mexico, in 2007 and lives in Highlandtown, a community built up by European immigrants more than a century ago. She is part of a new wave of immigrants that helped slow the city's rate of population loss — down from over 10 percent during the '90s to under 5 percent in the past decade.
The rate of foreign immigration to Baltimore more than doubled in the past decade, bucking the national trend of slowing immigration. In the 1990s, the city added about 6,000 immigrants; during the 2000s, more than 14,000 foreign-born people arrived.
Those are compelling numbers, experts say, because Baltimore during the '90s was bypassed by most immigrants even as the national immigration rate boomed.
The city had 44,000 foreign-born residents in 2010, about 7 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which counts foreign-born residents regardless of the legality of their presence. About 40 percent of the immigrants came from Latin America and the Caribbean; 25 percent from Asia, including the Middle East; and 15 percent from Africa.
"One thing we know about immigrant settlement is that social networks are important to get the word out that a place has opportunities" such as jobs and easy access to housing, said Audrey Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied immigration's effects on metropolitan areas. "Job opportunities [are] probably the single most important thing for attracting immigrants."
Nationally, most of the immigrant growth during the 2000s came before the housing collapse and economic downturn. Baltimore might have been able to sustain immigrant growth, Singer said, because its economy wasn't as damaged as in other cities — Las Vegas, for example — that lost many construction-related jobs.
Baltimore's higher immigration rate should spur more growth, demographers say. Immigrants will reach back home and draw friends and relatives, and foreign-born people traditionally have a higher birth rate than the native U.S. population.
Pockets of immigrants have developed in Baltimore. In the past five years alone, according to the census, several thousand immigrants from Latin American have settled in the city, most in the southeastern neighborhoods. More than 10 percent of Baltimore's foreign-born population is from Mexico.
Meanwhile, hundreds of African immigrants, including many refugees, have put down roots in the northeast corner of the city. The International Rescue Committee, which has a resettlement center in Baltimore, estimates that over the past 10 years more than 3,000 refugees and roughly 1,000 asylum-seekers have moved to the city. The group has helped nearly 1,000 people from Bhutan and resettled hundreds from Burma, among other countries.
There has been an influx of Asian immigrants in the neighborhoods of Keswick, Tuscany-Canterbury and Evergreen. The foreign-born residents in those neighborhoods, north of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, are likely drawn by learning and high-skill job opportunities, experts say.
It's clear to Nelson Ortega, executive director of Centro de la Comunidad, that the potential for jobs is the reason that immigrants — regardless of education or skill level — are moving to Baltimore. Since 2002, he said, the center has counseled about 11,000 people, and the largest part of the assistance went to helping people find employment.
Baltimore lagging behind neighbors
Philadelphia, like Baltimore, suffered through a half-century of population loss. But during the past decade it began growing again.
"Philadelphia wasn't thought of as an immigrant hub 10 years ago, but it is now," said Randy Capps, a senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "There's no reason to think that Baltimore can't make the same shift, with a stronger economy and safer environment."
Philadelphia grew by about 8,500 people between 2000 and 2010 — despite the continued loss of native-born residents — keeping the population slightly over 1.5 million.
"There were tremendous increases in the Latino and Asian populations, and we presume that comes predominantly from immigration," said Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for planning and economic development. The Census Bureau estimates that the city has 69,000 Asian and 51,000 Latin American immigrants.
Greenberger said he and Mayor Michael Nutter have made an effort to attend festivals and events popular with immigrant groups to make them feel welcome. And the city is trying to ease communication problems for small-business owners by having AmeriCorps volunteers with language skills — including Russian, Mandarin and Spanish — available.
"It's like a concierge service to help them deal with whatever problems they may encounter while running their business in the community," Greenberger said. The goal is to help new immigrants acclimate, with the hope that by the second generation those services will not be necessary.
Such "welcome centers," where, for instance, skilled immigrants can get information about becoming credentialed in various fields and parents can enroll children in school, are becoming more common in metropolitan areas, Capps said.
Harriet Tregoning, the District of Columbia's planning director and previously Maryland's secretary of planning under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, was struck by Baltimore's failure to attract immigrants during the 1990s, because Maryland had significant immigrant growth outside the city.
"It was Baltimore," she said. "Those are efforts that need to be made at a local level."
Rawlings-Blake's plan, she said, is not unrealistic if "people come, have a good experience and write home. … The city needs to look at who is coming and try to help them have a good experience."
The importance of courting immigrants has been noted in Baltimore since at least 2002, when the Abell Foundation released a report that concluded: "Growth comes from immigrants or not at all."
Stosur, Baltimore's planning director, said city officials are still developing strategies to reach Rawlings-Blake's goal of attracting 10,000 families — or 22,000 people. He hopes that with "targeted research" city administrators can work with organizations like the Abell Foundation to develop a plan that will increase the immigrant population, retain young people and draw older people looking to retire in a city setting.
Capps, the demographer, said some cities have opened offices dedicated to immigrant affairs, which set policy and establish a list of available resources, both public and private — such as the services offered by Centro de la Comunidad.
The Patterson Park Neighborhood Association has tried to make immigrants feel welcome by printing notices and newsletters in Spanish as well as English, said the group's leader, Heather Hurley.
"How can we expect all of our neighbors to come out for cleanups if we don't even communicate with them?" she said. The association recently received a grant to pay a translator to be present at meetings, she said.
Sandra Johnson, president of the Falstaff Improvement Association, said her Northwest Baltimore community has not made the same adjustments after a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants moved in.
"There's not much we've been able to do because there's a language issue," Johnson said. She suspects that many of her new neighbors are not in the country legally and therefore shy away from community meetings or other public events.
Longtime residents have raised concerns about large numbers of immigrants living in rental units intended for a few, as well as a lack of street parking and a rise in rowdy conduct, Johnson said. The community's public school resources, she said, have been strained by accommodating students who speak Spanish.
Though city officials are still developing plans to attract immigrants, some existing policies could work in Baltimore's favor. In mid-2010, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the federal "Secure Communities" program. Under the program, an arrested person's fingerprints are forwarded to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine whether he or she is subject to deportation.
At the beginning of December, Baltimore became one of two places in the country to test a more lenient immigration policy that allows some deportation actions to be halted. Such policies have sparked criticism.
"When they use the term immigrants, it's a euphemism for illegal aliens," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties. He is concerned that increased immigration to the city would displace native residents from low-skill jobs, stretch health care and education systems, and increase crime.
"When you put out the welcome mat, you are opening yourself up to more violence, more crime and more drugs," he said.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said immigration is a federal issue, "not a debate being driven on the ground here in Baltimore."
Rawlings-Blake, he said, is working on many fronts to improve the city for all people, including continuing to reduce crime and improve educational infrastructure, develop the housing stock and reduce property taxes, and encourage business development.
"We're proud to have a diverse city," he said. "All people are welcome here."
Suburban counties could threaten Baltimore's future gains. For instance, Baltimore County's immigrant population has risen from 4.5 percent in 1990 to more than 10 percent in 2010, well over the city's immigrant concentration.
Melba Ordonez, a Salvadoran immigrant visiting Centro de la Comunidad last week for assistance in renewing her husband's work permit, was drawn to Baltimore more than a decade ago by relatives. After a few years, they bought a house in Middle River — drawn by the same attraction that has lured many other families to suburban counties.
"The schools," she said. "We moved out of the city for the schools."
What comes to mind when Mexican immigrant Elsa Garcia thinks of Baltimore's drawbacks?