In Growing Baltimore, Are Immigrants The Key?

The population of Baltimore, Maryland has been declining, like many formerly industrial cities. But now, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is trying to fight that decades-long trend. She speaks to host Michel Martin about opening Baltimore to immigrants, and whether doing so might aggravate the city's already high unemployment rate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we take our weekly visit to the Barbershop, and, yes, we must go there. We are going to ask the guys if Team USA's women are the big winners so far for the U.S., perhaps outshining the men. Just asking.

But first, a newsmaker interview with the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Baltimore is in the news from time to time for all of the usual big city reasons: exciting sports teams, tumultuous politics, and because it's one of many mature, urban, formerly industrial cities looking for ways to fight a half-century-long trend of population decline.

But now Baltimore's mayor is fighting that trend, hoping to gain 10,000 families over the next 10 years. How? By opening the door to immigrants. Here to tell us more about her plans for the city of Baltimore is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: It is certainly my pleasure. Do I get to answer the Barbershop question?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, sure.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I think the women have done a fantastic job in the Olympics. The gymnastics, it's inspirational.

MARTIN: Well, but we...

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: And I just remember being a young girl and watching the Olympics and just being inspired by the powerful women. And I'm just glad that my daughter gets to see them. So that's my two cents on the Barbershop question.

MARTIN: OK, but we were going to ask about, you know, Baltimore does have its own, the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. Can't leave him out, right?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Yeah. He's great, too, but I can't take it away from the women.

MARTIN: OK.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: But that is not why you asked me to talk.

MARTIN: Well, with that being said, I wanted to ask what - you know, one of the reasons your initiatives are in the news is that so many other jurisdictions have been in the news for the opposite direction, trying to find ways to actively discourage people who they believe to be, you know, out of status.

The first thing I wanted to ask is: How did you get the idea of trying to attract more immigrants to the city as a way to fight this population decline? Which, as we said, Baltimore is not the only city experiencing it.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Mm-hmm. Well, I had to focus on ways that we could grow our city. You know, it is commonly known that a city that is not growing is a city that is dying, and Baltimore has such a rich history. My focus in my administration is making sure that its future is just as bright as the history we've had, and part of that is attracting new families. So I set out an ambitious goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade.

And I believe since our country is founded - Baltimore is founded - on the backs of immigrants, I thought it was important to include immigrants as a part of our goal of reaching 10,000 families.

MARTIN: One of the steps that you've taken is you signed an order prohibiting police and other city workers from asking people about their immigration status. And you also explicitly asked federal immigration authorities, if they are conducting business in the city, to explicitly tell people that they are not acting on behalf of the city. Why did you do that?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I think it sends a clear message to immigrants that Baltimore is a welcoming city. It's a city that won't discriminate against them, and that's a message that I think people need to hear at a time when too many cities, too many states are basically putting up a do-not-enter sign.

Baltimore is not one of those cities. We are open for business, particularly in the area of Latino immigrants. 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.

MARTIN: What are some of the other steps that you've taken to try to tell people that the welcome mat is out?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: For immigrants?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: We are supporting - I'm working very hard to support the - Maryland's Dream Act, which is on the ballot in November. It gives instate tuition for all Maryland families that pay taxes and graduate from a Maryland high school. And that's important, because people need to know when they move to a place that they have a future, and that getting the Dream Act passed in Maryland is certainly part of ensuring a strong foundation for growth.

MARTIN: What reaction are you getting from constituents?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Generally speaking, I would say positive. You know, I don't think in any decision that you make that 100 percent of the people are happy. But, you know, I think people who understand a growth strategy understand that I'm not choosing immigrants over native-born Americans or that I'm choosing new residents over current residents. It's about all of us growing and getting better and being successful together, not - it's not an either-or proposition. So...

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons your efforts stand out is that they stand in stark contrast to some other states and jurisdictions where their elected leaders have explicitly gone in the other direction - for example, passing laws requiring more aggressive efforts to find people who are in their jurisdictions out of status, and in the Washington, D.C. area. For example, Prince William County in Virginia was known for these aggressive efforts and saw a drop in its immigrant population as a result. And I'm just, you know, wondering why. What do you think accounts for the difference in philosophy around this?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I can't really speak to the difference in philosophy. I don't know - you know, I know what got me to my position, where I think that there's enough room in our country to grow a population. I don't know what brings people to reject the history that built our country and decide now it's time to work to fight, you know, new people coming into the country.

But, yeah, honest minds can differ. But I want people to know that I believe that Baltimore can be a great place for families. So I know whether you're born here or born from another country, that you want the same thing for your family. You want safe and strong neighborhoods with good schools, good job opportunities, and lower property taxes. And that's what you'll find if you move to Baltimore.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. We're talking about her plans to increase Baltimore's population by 10,000 families over the next decade. And part of that strategy is to make it very clear that the city is welcoming to immigrants.

Now, you know, to that end, you mentioned the Dream Act, which would offer a path to normalization or a path to job opportunity and education for people who were brought here as children. You know, on the one hand, people who say - people who support the Dream Act say that that's just common sense, because these are people who are young, energetic, who are going to have a lifetime to offer, you know, their adopted country.

But other people say this is not the time to be adding this many people - the estimate is there are about a million people who fall into this category around the country - to an economy that is already struggling. And Baltimore's unemployment rate is hovering around the 10 percent mark...

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...which is above the national average. And I'm wondering if that argument has been made to you, and how you respond to it.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Well, I respond in a few ways. The key to our country being stronger in the long-term is having a well-educated workforce. And these young people who grew up here, graduated from Maryland high schools and whose parents pay Maryland taxes have the ability to help our country have a more prosperous and successful future with better education. So I'm in support of that.

And with respect to unemployment, many of the immigrants that come to Baltimore open businesses, employ individuals. You know, so I think some people like to look at the issue of immigration as a negative, and I certainly see the positive in opening our community to more individuals.

MARTIN: And I don't want to be, you know, one of the people who conflates all immigration with illegal immigration or undocumented immigration.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because, you know, that is obviously not right and fair to do. But there are those who have argued that this creates, in effect, a sanctuary city. In fact, one of the critics who's - from your neighbor to the north, one of the delegates from Baltimore County said he's actually consulting with a conservative think-tank, because he says he believes that your efforts are, in his words, aiding and abetting people who are in the country illegally. And I'd like to ask how you respond to them.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: We probably differ on a lot of things, the delegate from the north. But I do want Baltimore to be a sanctuary for families that are making progress in key areas in the city, a sanctuary for people who want better for their families and better for their community. And, you know, part of that is fully supporting comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.

To me, that's where the issue lies, not whether or not someone is - their current status is documented or undocumented. What's the underlying policy, and do we believe that that's the best thing for our country in the long term? And, you know, I don't think that we are where we need to be when it comes to our immigration policy.

And I'm hopeful that after all the election year politics die down, that Congress will begin to act responsibly in a way that supports cities like Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia, what we're trying to do to grow our cities and to have prosperous and healthy economies.

MARTIN: You know that Baltimore was recently named one of the 20 Coolest American Cities by Forbes magazine.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Yeah. That's what I say all the time.

MARTIN: That's what you say all the time? I wanted to ask...

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Yeah, we're cool.

MARTIN: What makes it cool?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: There are so many things. We've got a thriving arts community here, a vast underground music scene. And we have people that identify so very strongly with their Baltimore roots, their neighborhood roots. I mean, just think about some of the characters that we have that are from Maryland.

Every time I talk to John Waters, he just makes me laugh and makes me proud to be a Baltimorean. He says that the difference between the people from Baltimore and New York is people in New York, they think they're weird or eclectic, and they're just normal. And people in Baltimore think they're normal, and we're weird.

So I - yeah. I think there's a lot of quirkiness here. There's a lot of pride. There's a lot of creativity. We're a city on the move, and I think people are starting to see that more and more.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I just want to end our conversation where it began. We're in the middle of Olympic excitement, and I'm assuming that people of Baltimore are especially proud of hometown hero Michael Phelps. He will be returning to the area, right, as the most decorated...

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Olympian ever. And I did wonder whether there was any kind of celebration planned, perhaps crab cakes are involved. I don't know.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: We certainly hope so. You know, we are taking cues from his camp and how he wants to celebrate. In 2008, when he broke the record for most medals in the game, there was certainly a big celebration for him and all of our Maryland Olympians. And my hope is that we can do the same thing again. There's, again, so much pride here in Baltimore for what he has been able to accomplish. And, again, I think, for young kids - I mean, my daughter's eight and she - it just took her a little while to wrap her head around how humungous, how tremendous this accomplishment was. And all she could say was, wow.

And, you know, that's what kids are going to, you know, be inspired by for generations. So I'm very, very proud, and we're looking forward to celebrating in whatever way he wants to.

MARTIN: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, and she was kind enough to join us from WYPR in Baltimore.

Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Oh, it's certainly my pleasure.

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