In this Policy Initiative Spotlight, Renewing America contributor Steven J. Markovich looks at recent efforts undertaken by Baltimore and other cities to attract immigrants. He argues that while efforts like these could be crucial in combating near-term population decline, the central challenge for local leaders lies in laying the groundwork for economic growth.
Baltimore is hoping new outreach programs and legal protections will encourage more immigrants to make the Charm City their new home in the United States. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hopes to attract 10,000 new families over the next ten years, and expects many to be immigrants.
In March, Rawlings-Blake prohibited police and social agencies from asking about immigration status, and asked federal immigration officials to explicitly tell people they arrest that they are not agents of the city. The city’s outreach to Latinos is particularly notable with city-run classes in Spanish. While more immigrant-specific initiatives are still under development, the mayor has launched a variety of programs to make Baltimore a more welcoming place, with goals of improving schools, lowering crime, lowering property taxes, and increasing jobs.
The mayor’s push to make Latinos feel welcome in Baltimore appears to be working. One twenty-four year old woman born in Mexico told the Washington Post "I like living here. They don’t look at you weird because you don’t speak English." She utilizes the city’s Spanish-language nutrition and exercise classes, and even takes her two young children to the local library for a storytelling hour in Spanish.
In a NPR interview, Rawlings-Blake contrasted Baltimore’s approach to immigrants with other areas that have passed stricter immigration laws, such as Arizona: "I think it sends a clear message to immigrants that Baltimore is a welcoming city…too many cities, too many states are basically putting up a do-not-enter sign." Regarding the city’s particular outreach to Latinos, and their impact on economic growth, she offered: "We've actively recruited Latino immigrants to Baltimore, and when they come here, they're thriving. Many have opened businesses, employed individuals. The Latino members of our community that are in our public school system are thriving. I think it's a win-win."
That win-win from immigration could be crucial to helping Baltimore and many other northern cities combat population decline as young people move to pursue job opportunities elsewhere. As a city’s population declines, it faces the challenge of spreading its infrastructure and service costs over a smaller base. Cities that face ballooning deficits can try to raise taxes, or cut services and investment, but both approaches will make them less attractive to citizens and businesses alike.
Similar efforts are underway across the nation. Global Detroit hopes to power up the Motor City by making it a more international place, encouraging immigration, foreign investment, and trade. The non-profit has funded over $4 million of initiatives since 2010, including everything from social programs to encouraging the expansion of global firms in Detroit and nearby Windsor, Ontario, which has less restrictive visa laws.
Canada has also used immigration to revitalize moribund cities. Since the late 1990s, local leaders across Manitoba have used innovative immigration initiatives to combat the loss of youth to Winnipeg and Calgary. Canadian civic leaders have benefited from visa policies that encourage economic based immigration. Canada issues more employment-based visas than the United States, despite being one tenth the size. In the United States, economic criteria determine only 7 percent of green cards.
Efforts to make cities more inviting to immigrants will have some benefit, but they should not be viewed as a panacea. Immigration policy is largely a federal issue, and immigrants often move for the same reason many young Americans do, to pursue opportunities. Setting the stage for economic growth by providing robust infrastructure, safe neighborhoods and good schools—all while keeping taxes manageable--remains the major challenge for cities. Still, increased outreach can help a city grow by making it more competitive in its fight to attract people and jobs.