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Immigrants Help Reverse Baltimore’s Decline

The city’s aggressive attempts to attract immigrants have helped increase its population for the first time in decades. Should other struggling cities adopt a similar strategy?

The Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
Flickr/ Bossi
For a few years now, a handful of cities have been trying to position themselves as more immigrant-friendly communities. At a time when some states have adopted tougher immigration laws that can make them less welcoming to foreign-born residents, cities like Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, have actively been trying to attract immigrants in the hope they’ll help drive new economic growth.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

One of the most aggressive is Baltimore. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s efforts began in 2011, when she set the goal of attracting 10,000 new families over the next decade. Believing immigrants were instrumental to the initiative, Rawlings-Blake pushed through various measures to make their acclimation to the city smoother. She ordered social service and police officers to stop questioning people’s citizenship status. She launched Spanish-only classes within public schools, and founded community groups to help immigrants complete paperwork. This September, she recommended that the city hire liaisons to connect with immigrant communities, and ease their process for obtaining mortgages.

Baltimore’s immigrant population was already growing, but these policies are credited with helping it grow even more. After bottoming out in 1990, the city’s immigrant totals doubled to 44,000 by 2010, even as its overall population declined by 115,000. Since Rawlings-Blake’s measures, the immigrant population has continued to grow, and for the first time in six decades, so too has the population citywide.

This has produced demographic shifts in a place that has traditionally been divided along black and white lines. According to the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute, Baltimore immigrants now make up 9 percent of the population, but 12 percent of the workforce and more than one-fifth of business owners. A report published by the city and the nonprofit Abell Foundation found that local immigrants had far higher education and lower unemployment levels than the general population.

Their most visible impact, however, has been on the built fabric of the city, as vibrant ethnic pockets have emerged near downtrodden parts of the city. Data shows that Asians who work in high-skill fields for local universities have clustered around downtown, while a smattering of African immigrants have settled in the northeast. Meanwhile, Hispanic immigrants have clustered densely on the southeast side, namely Highlandtown. A local official described the neighborhood in the mid-1990s as being much like the rest of Baltimore, with its “absentee landlords, dysfunctional families [and] loss of businesses.” Nowadays, it is teeming with Mexican and Peruvian businesses lining Eastern Avenue.

Should this be a strategy adopted by other struggling cities? To a large extent, many Rust Belt cities already have: Immigrant communities have positively impacted Detroit and St. Louis. Different localities have granted undocumented immigrants various forms of identification and licensing.

So while Baltimore’s welcome-mat mentality may seem extreme to outsiders, it shows how localities, when faced with federal indecision and homegrown troubles, can craft immigration policies that fit their needs.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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