Izzy Patoka was only 8 years old when he became his parents’ interpreter.

Like many Jewish refugees who fled Europe during the Holocaust, the Patokas didn’t speak English. So whenever an official-looking document came in the mail, they would ask their son to translate and to explain.

“I always felt that I did not live up to what my parents expected because I was not a lawyer or a doctor at eight years old,” said Patoka, who is now chair of the Baltimore County Council. “And that is a challenge that every child of new Americans experiences to this day.”

Israel “Izzy” Patoka speaks, framed to the left of a person’s shadowed and blurry head.
Baltimore County Council Chair Israel “Izzy” Patoka, a son of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe during the Holocaust, speaks during an event in Baltimore on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Patoka and other county officials want to make the immigrant experience more welcoming for parents and children. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore County officials want o make the immigrant experience less challenging for both parents and children. Monday, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. unveiled the Baltimore County Welcoming and Belonging Strategic Plan. The 42-page report includes demographic information about the county, as well as about the spending power of immigrants, their strong home ownership records and their entrepreneurial acumen.

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Olszewski is running for the 2nd District congressional seat.

Baltimore County’s population has been slowing shrinking since 2020, with the county losing about 1,300 people in 2023, a decline of about 0.1%. Its population loss would have been even greater had it not been for immigrants.

The county’s foreign-born population grew by 15,439 people from 2012 to 2022, an increase of 16.3%. Over that same time, the county’s total population grew by just 3.5%. It added nearly 29,000 total people during that time, meaning its foreign-born population made up more than half its total growth, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The county’s foreign-born population surpassed 110,000 in 2022, which meant it had the third-largest number of foreign-born residents in Maryland.

The report lists goals with timelines, something Olszewski said would help in implementation. Short-term strategies, which will take one to three years, include funding and establishing a cabinet-level Office of New Americans to coordinate county efforts across agencies, from the health department to the permitting offices. The report also recommends establishing a commission on immigrant affairs to continue the task force’s work.

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Longer-term goals include working with the library and community college systems to prepare new immigrants for the naturalization interview and test, connect immigrants with legal services, and empower them to understand and assert their rights. The report also recommends providing leadership and training so that new immigrants can represent their communities in public service and leadership roles.

These efforts stand in contrast to jurisdictions nationwide that have railed against immigration. The governors of Texas and Florida sent unauthorized migrants in their state to Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts; to the vice president’s residence in Washington, D.C.; and to Sacramento and Chicago. All of the recipient states and the District of Columbia are led by Democratic mayors.

Though Olszewski has long believed that “diversity is our strength,” he has seen firsthand the difficulties immigrants face. At a recent budget hearing at Perry Hall High School, a number of those testifying had their elementary-aged children next to them. As a young Patoka once did, the children were translating for their parents. They were asking the county executive and his staff for better access to recreation centers, more translators at the county health office, and help getting needed documents, like driver’s licenses.

For that reason, Olszewski said his top priority is language access services that provide translation across the agencies so immigrants can use the services for which they are paying.

The assistance is long overdue, said Tasha Gresham-James, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance Corp. Her community has welcomed new Americans from Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras in recent years.

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“It’s not just that they’re Spanish speakers, but there’s also a cultural difference,” she said. As a member of the task force, she said, she’s emphasized increased outreach to immigrant communities. Outreach at libraries, community colleges, and workplaces are just some of the ways to access new residents.

A child crosses a memorial site to honor the six bridge construction workers, all Latino immigrants, who lost their lives in the collapse of the Key Bridge on March 26, 2024. Members of the community honored the victims through prayer and song on April 6, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman, Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Veronica Cool, whose company, Cool & Associates, worked on community engagement for the report, agreed that meeting immigrants where they are is crucial.

“You either welcome the folks who are providing your tax base and providing your workers, or you will suffer deficits,” Cool said.

Like many involved in the effort, Cool is a Latina. The county’s immigrant affairs outreach office includes three employees, and its manager, Giuliana Valencia-Banks, is fluent in Spanish.

Valencia-Banks has been helping families of the six construction workers who died in the Key Bridge collapse, as well as assisting with many health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Spanish-speakers are not her only constituency. The county has generations of Chinese and Korean Americans, as well as new residents from Nepal and Afghanistan.

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“I always think: If it’s hard for Latinos who speak Spanish as their primary language to get access to different services, imagine being a refugee who doesn’t have English fluency,” said Valencia-Banks, whose family immigrated from Peru and who also translated for her parents as a child in Florida. “We have developed an inclusive approach with this strategic plan. We have been very thoughtful about it.”

This story has been updated to include that Cool & Associates did community engagement for the report but did not write it; that Valencia-Banks provided assistance to families in the Key Bridge collapse but did not provide translation services, and that Valencia-Banks and her family are Peruvian immigrants.

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