Immigrant growth

Elsa Garcia, center, of Mexico, with her daughter Paola Catalan Garcia, 3, thanks Damaris Paneto, right, health and housing counselor at Centro De La Comunidad, Inc., after receiving services. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / December 29, 2011)

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.