The Migration-Development Nexus in Local Immigration Policy: Baltimore City and Beyond

By Felipe A. Filomeno, University of Maryland Baltimore County

Challenging the plenary power of national governments over immigration, local governments have increasingly engaged in the control of immigration and in the integration of immigrants in host communities. Because most immigrants live in urban areas, local immigration policies are an important piece of the governance of international migration. They can affect international migration flows, the implementation of national immigration policies, and immigrants’ access to employment, housing and public services. In “The migration-development nexus in local immigration policy: Baltimore City and the Hispanic diaspora”, I offer a theory of local immigration policy that emphasizes the developmental efforts of local governments and immigrant communities.

After examining the case of Baltimore City in the context of the U.S. rustbelt, I concluded that a convergence of efforts by local governments and by immigrant communities at upward social mobility favors the emergence of inclusionary local immigration policies. On the part of local governments, efforts at upward mobility include policies to expand their population and economy – and, thus, their tax base and political clout – in relation to their region and other localities. Immigration can be instrumental for such policies. On the part of immigrants, efforts at upward mobility start with the very act of emigration to a more affluent area and continue as they seek to improve their relative position within the host society, including demands for public policies in their favor. Moreover, I found that the incorporation of immigrants’ needs into the developmental agenda of local authorities is facilitated by the presence of Democratic partisanship and ethnic bifurcation in localities. By contrast, Republican partisanship and ethnic homogeneity can lead municipalities to blame immigrants for their problems.

Since the late 1970s, the City of Baltimore has adopted a series of inclusionary immigration policies, ranging from the dissemination of public information in foreign languages to prohibiting city personnel from discriminating against immigrants. The first sign of the emergence of an immigration policy in Baltimore City was the creation of the position of liaison between the Mayor’s Office and the Hispanic community in 1979. Then Mayor William D. Schaefer (Democratic Party) appointed to the position José Ruiz, a leader of the local Hispanic community. However, it was only in the early 2000s that local authorities started to perceive immigration as means to repopulate Baltimore City and to promote local economic development. In the year 2000, the U.S. census stated that Baltimore City had continued to lose population and data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis suggested that the city had reached the bottom level of its relative economic decline, with an income per capita equivalent to 81.9% of the  corresponding national value. Then Mayor Martin O’Malley (Democratic Party) reacted to these numbers by telling officials to develop a plan to market the city to immigrants. In 2002, the O’Malley administration included immigration in its “Economic Growth Strategy for Baltimore City” and created the Mayor’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, which organizes the provision of services and assistance to immigrants in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore City Council passed a series of resolutions in support of an inclusionary approach to immigration. In 2005, at the request of CASA de Maryland (a major immigrant-supporting organization linked to the Hispanic community), the council passed a resolution supporting the establishment of a center for day workers to assemble while awaiting for temporary employment. In 2007, the council issued an ordinance creating the Baltimore City Hispanic Commission, which serves as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the city government. In 2009, the council approved a resolution supporting President Obama’s efforts towards comprehensive immigration reform. For months, members of the Baltimore City Hispanic Commission, the Latino Providers Network, CASA de Maryland and other organizations of the local Hispanic community had been lobbying with elected officials in order to gain the support of the city council.

After Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Democratic Party) was elected for her first full term as mayor of Baltimore in November 2011, she continued to develop the city’s immigration policy under the broader goal of attracting 10,000 families to the city over a decade. In March 2012, she issued an executive order establishing several protections to immigrants in Baltimore, including anti-discrimination provisions and an instruction for city personnel not to inquire individuals about their immigration status. The ordinance had been demanded by the local Hispanic community, which had protested outside of the city hall in the previous year in demand of an order prohibiting racial profiling by the local police. During her electoral campaign, Rawlings-Blake had promised Latino leaders that she would address their concerns and won the election with their support.

In 2014, Mayor Rawlings-Blake convened a task force to design a plan for Baltimore’s immigration policy. Hispanics were the immigrant group most represented in the committee, whose work resulted in the report “The Role of Immigrants in Growing Baltimore, Recommendations to Retain and Attract New Americans”. After having evolved inconsistently as a series of scattered measures since the late 1970s, Baltimore’s immigration policy now has a blueprint. The experience of Baltimore with immigration seems to be successful. The number of immigrants has increased in the past few years, helping the city register its first population growth in decades.

In sum, Baltimore’s inclusionary approach to immigration emerged as a product of the intersecting efforts at upward social mobility by the local government and the Hispanic community. The presence of a Democratic political leadership used to (and actually enthusiastic of) local ethnic diversity facilitated the incorporation of immigrants’ demands into official efforts to reverse the city’s population and economic downscaling. The dialogue between the local government and the Hispanic community has been a key link in the local immigration policy network.

And Baltimore is not alone. Other post-industrial cities like Cleveland (Ohio), Dayton (Ohio) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) have also adopted policies to attract and retain immigrants as a way to reverse the population and economic decline that followed deindustrialization and suburbanization. In these cities, we also see Democratic partisanship and a bifurcated ethnic composition facilitating the incorporation of immigrants’ rights and demands in local development policies. Their situation contrasts with the case of Hazleton (Pennsylvania), where, despite downscaling pressures typical of post-industrial cities, the presence of a Republican leadership in a local community uncomfortable with ethnic diversification led to a backlash against a surge in Latino immigration. In 2006, the Mayor of Hazleton pushed through one of the country’s strictest local ordinances against unauthorized immigrants.

While the media has paid more attention to anti-immigrant localities (such as Hazleton, Farmers Branch and San Bernardino) and to “sanctuary cities” (such as New York and San Francisco), my study brought attention to a third category of cities, whose approach to immigration is better characterized as inclusionary-developmental. As the incipient success of Baltimore City with immigrants suggests, the migration-development nexus should be considered not only in the study of immigrant-sending areas, but also in the explanation – and making – of immigration policy in immigrant-receiving localities. At last, the conclusions of this study suggest that local governments are not passive objects of global processes such as international migration. Neither are they fully circumscribed by national states in their policies. Local governments can actively forge links with transnational processes in order to maintain or improve their position within regional, national and global fields of power.

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