Baltimore is one step closer to having a permanent office that serves as the city’s hub of services supporting its immigrant population.

The more than decade-old Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs was created as a division of the mayor’s office that could be cut at any time. Under a bill being considered by the City Council, it would be added to the city code as a permanent office.

At an overwhelmingly supportive City Council hearing recently, veteran advocates for Latino communities spoke about how the office collaborates with grassroots organizations. They said they were grateful for how the office’s founding director, Catalina Rodriguez Lima, supported families in time of need and how she helped integrate non-English speakers to the city.

The bill comes at a time of tragedy and resilience in the city’s Latino communities. The impact of the March collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which killed six Latino construction workers, was felt in the hearing testimony. The work brought up by the city’s immigrant office, namely the support of the victims’ families, was praised, over and over again.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Odette Ramos, the city’s first Latina council member, introduced the bill in October, arguing that it would ensure the city continues to serve immigrant communities regardless of who is mayor. The office was established in 2014 as part of then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s initiative to welcome immigrant families to the city as a remedy to Baltimore’s dwindling population.

Rodriguez Lima said one of the questions people have asked her was why make the office permanent now, when it has existed so long with her as head?

“It’s been difficult to plan long term, given the crises starting in 2016 with an anti-immigrant president, the pandemic, and the changes in local leadership,” she said.

Mayor Brandon Scott is the first mayor she has served for the entire term. Her office was established towards the end of Rawlings-Blake’s term and her successor Catherine Pugh resigned in 2019, before completing her term, after being accused of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. She was later convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and two counts of tax evasion.

City officials and community organizers say the office has proven its worth, especially in light of recent tragedies in addition to the Key Bridge collapse, including a fire on Lombard Street in Baltimore Highlands earlier this year that killed two children and one young man. Lucia Islas and Susana Barrios, advocates who were some of the first to respond to the crisis involving Latino communities, both said that the office works alongside them to provide resources and support emerging immigrant leaders.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

At the meeting were organizers from 56 immigrant and community advocacy groups, including CASA, Kids In Need, Southeast CDC, Esperanza Center, KIND, Southeast Community Development Corporation and Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. They all echoed one another: Every crisis, every moment of need, the office of immigration affairs has been there for them.

Rodriguez Lima testified that 100 residents have said they support the bill. One resident, Madelin Martinez, said the office’s abilities to raise funds for families in need and language access efforts are unmatched and invaluable to communities across the state. Codifying the office is an opportunity to show to other counties and cities “how it has to be done,” she said.

When Pedro Palomino, a journalist who runs two Spanish-language publications, arrived to the city in 2001, there was no office in charge of serving immigrants. The office has developed an efficient bridge of communication between communities and local government, he said in Spanish. It has also led other localities, like Baltimore County, to replicate the office’s work, he added.

Giuliana Valencia-Banks, Baltimore County’s first Immigrant Affairs Outreach Coordinator, said the city’s office “sets the standard” for engaging with immigrant communities. She called the Key Bridge Emergency Response Fund, which was set up by the office, a “Herculean” effort to raise money to support six families who lost their loved ones. The office, she emphasized, is vital not just in times of crisis, but has services that are critical for everyone.

Other Baltimore council members and agency officials overwhelmingly supported the bill at the hearing. Councilman Phylicia Porter, who represents District 10, asked Rodriguez Lima to expand on the Department of Finance’s report stating that the creation of the office would not have any impact on the city’s budget. Zeke Cohen, who represents District 1, asked Rodriguez Lima if her office works with unions to advocate in safety and wage-theft issues.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Finance Department said the office has its own budget and it will not be adding any positions. Rodriguez Lima and Ramos said they are working with existing agencies to help people with workplace issues.

Cohen also praised the office’s work at a time that has been challenging for immigrants.

“Our immigrant community is incredibly resilient. It has been incredible to see the growth — the growth in our schools, the growth in our business, the growth in economic development, and the way that folks have carried on,” he said.

The Office of Immigrant Affairs is small, with positions that include a director, a deputy director, a language access coordinator and a communications specialist. But it has a network of supporters with institutions across the city. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, it partnered with Centro SOL at Johns Hopkins University to identify the needs of the immigrant community and develop timely solutions, including testing and vaccination, said Kathleen Page, co-director at Centro Sol.

Rodriguez Lima said her office works to leverage existing resources with city agencies to make sure people have access to services. She said her office is “the squeaky wheel,” the advocate that asks the questions to increase the capacity of city agencies to provide services to immigrants.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Ideally, MIMA would not exist,” she frequently says. “But that’s not the case.”

The bill is expected to go to the final reading in early May.

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

More From The Banner