Promoting Immigrant Entrepreneurship

For some reason, our national discourse on immigration tends to steeply discount the wealth of benefits we receive from the energy, brains, and brawn of immigrant workers, and that is unfortunate. If our perceptions are slightly askew from reality, a possible explanation may go something like this: a notorious robber, Willie Sutton, was once asked why he robbed banks, and he supposedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.” Likewise, we tend to hear more about the downsides of immigration – actual and perceived – because stoking people’s fears has proven to be an effective vote-getting strategy in some areas.

The facts tell a more optimistic story. As the immigrant entrepreneur and scholar, Vivek Wadhwa, pointed out in a study released five years ago, the high-tech boom of the 1990s and early 2000s was fueled by bright, ambitious entrepreneurs who were born overseas. Wadhwa’s research found that a quarter of the high-tech companies founded in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had at least one founder who was foreign-born. (Cited in Land of Opportunity: In the U.S., Immigrants and Entrepreneurs are Increasingly the Same, 30.Mar.2007, India Knowledge@Wharton.) This includes Silicon Valley powerhouses like Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Google. As the Wharton article points out, “Nationwide, immigrant-founded companies generated $52 billion in sales in 2005 and employed 450,000 people.” The article quotes Wadhwa’s rhetorical question, “How can you argue with half-a-million jobs and $52 billion in revenue?”

How, indeed?! We need more of this, if anything, and we have known this for years, but so fraught and tortuous are the politics of immigration that our legal and policy apparatus has yet to catch up. In the waning days of the 209th Congress, back in 2006, an independent, bipartisan Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future put it this way:

Immigrants are helping the United States maintain a competitive edge. In the critical fields of science and engineering, immigrants play a pivotal role. To take just one example, in 2004, 50 percent of students enrolled in engineering graduation programs in the U.S. higher education system were foreign-born. At a time when China and India are increasingly competitive, the United States must continue to attract the world’s best and brightest – or risk losing an important resource to other nations. (See Immigration and America’s Future: A New Chapter, Report of the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, by Doris Meissner, et al., Migration Policy Institute, Manhattan Institute, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Sept 2006.)

This was back in the days of the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill, when the Democrats and Republicans were still cooperating – more or less – on immigration policy. Now, several years later, the risk of a reverse brain drain described by the independent task force has become, if anything, more pointed.

In recent months, several states and localities have taken immigration policy into their own hands, claiming the right to do so by dint of necessity, in the absence of meaningful federal action to deal with illegal immigration. Most jurisdictions have passed or are considering negative measures, legislation designed to penalize immigrants or subject them to heightened government scrutiny. Mirroring the distortion in our public discourse on immigration, almost all of these measures only address the problem of illegal immigration, ignoring the need to promote immigration that helps our economy.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken a refreshingly different tack, stressing the positive contributions of immigrants and taking steps to promote immigrant entrepreneurship in his city. (See Bloomberg Vows Support for NYC Immigrant Entrepreneurs, by Momar Visaya, Asian Journal Press New York, 11.Mar.2011.) According to the New York City Economic Development Corp, Mayor Bloomberg’s new programs include the following.

  • competitive grants for ventures that would address concerns of immigrant entrepreneurs like access to credit, financial management, language barriers, or access to business networks
  • new, free NYC Business Solution courses in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Russian, to help foreign-born entrepreneurs to learn the skills they need to launch, operate, and expand small businesses
  • a business expo to showcase locally-based immigrant food manufacturing businesses and link them to consumers nationwide

(See Mayor Bloomberg Announces Three New Steps to Make it Easier for Immigrant-Owned Businesses to Start and Grow in New York City, Press Release, New York City Economic Development Corp, 03.Mar.2011.) According to the New York City Economic Development Corp, the new programs grew out of a series of discussions with community stakeholders in the city, and “are part of the City’s agenda to support immigrant communities and empower them to grow and create jobs.” Mayor Bloomberg commented, “We need the Federal government to fix our immigration system, but New York City can’t afford to wait.” Neither can the rest of the country, for that matter.

What’s refreshing about Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts is that they focus on the economic benefits of immigration – those most neglected in our national policy debate – and take positive steps to harness the creative energy of immigrant entrepreneurs. Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) it is not – but it is among the very few local measures that takes a positive approach to improving our immigration policy – and our economy.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.