The key to successful immigration? Business

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Last week, my son’s sixth-grade Spanish class held an end-of-the-year Hispanic food fiesta. Everyone was asked to bring something, and so I took the opportunity to pick up homemade ice cream and fruit bars from La Rosita, a local neveria (loosely translated as “ice cream shop”) on the west side of town. I love patronizing this establishment, not only because their homemade frozen treats are among the best in the city, but because theirs is a success story that is so stereotypically American: the owner came to the United States from central America, settling first in Chicago and then moving to South Bend, Indiana to fulfill his dream of starting his own business.

La Rosita is one of many such establishments. As I drove down Western Avenue, I remarked with great delight on the number and variety of businesses catering to the Spanish-speaking members of our community: restaurants and grocery stores, bars, taquerias, machine repair shops and mechanics, cellphone shops, clothing stores and tax preparation services, to name just a few.

And South Bend, Indiana, is a typical American city in this regard. The same entrepreneurial dynamic is taking place across the United States every day, with every conceivable ethnic group that has come here in any number. (And the bigger the city, the greater the number of countries and ethnicities you will see represented.)

Lost in the noise and anger of today’s arguments about immigration is the role that entrepreneurship and business has played in the success of America’s famed status as a “melting pot.” Oh, much is said about “immigration” and “jobs” — but the focus tends to be on “jobs Americans won’t do,” or “immigrants taking jobs from Americans” or “American companies outsourcing jobs” or “abuse of the H1-B visas” to obtain jobs for immigrants.

In other words, too much of the discussion (if you want to call it that) focuses on jobs that other people give to immigrants. And while that is certainly an important part of our economy, too little attention is given to the businesses that immigrants themselves create.

Like most Americans, I can think of any number of people I have met for whom entrepreneurship is part of their immigration story: the grade school friend whose father left Italy and founded a beloved Italian restaurant in our hometown of Champaign, Illinois; the Lebanese couple whose Middle Eastern restaurant was among the most elegant and popular in Birmingham, Michigan; the Jewish owners of a day spa in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, who fled the former Soviet Union to Israel with only what they could carry in two suitcases, and who continued on to the U.S. to start their lives over here.

Plenty of studies show that immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses. Scholars are just beginning to study why. Perhaps it is that language barriers or differences in schooling leave few other options. Perhaps it is a way to bring family members here and provide gainful employment for them. Or maybe starting a business is far less frightening to those who have already endured leaving country and kin behind.

Whatever the reason, entrepreneurship provides meaningful benefits to immigrants: a sense of accomplishment, the feeling of freedom and autonomy, independence and a better future for their children. The jobs that immigrant businesses create for others are no small contribution, either. Statistics show that around 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants, 25 percent of net new jobs come from immigrant businesses, and a third of all of the businesses that went public between 2006 and 2012 had immigrant founders.

But one of the most overlooked contributions of immigrant entrepreneurship is that this is the way cultures and traditions are learned and shared with those who would not otherwise every know them.

It is utterly common for Americans — regardless of their own ethnicities — to love German beer, celebrate Cinco de Mayo, eat polish paczkis or Lebanese baklava, drink English tea, listen to Indian sitars or Australian didgeridoos, wear Peruvian knitted woolens or African kente cloth or Indonesian batiks. Food, music, art, literature, festivals and celebrations from all over the world have become a part of American daily life — provided by those who brought their cultures and traditions here, and then created businesses around them. No doubt this was originally to satisfy a market among fellow immigrants who longed for things from home, but eventually — as with the ice cream shop on the west side of South Bend — creativity, quality products and services, unusual talent, and a fascinating history appeal to a much wider audience.

This has happened with such regularity in the United States that we do not stop to think about how extraordinary immigrant entrepreneurship is — and how extraordinarily successful it has been in integrating newcomers here. (Seriously — how many people in Poland celebrate Cinco de Mayo?)

It is a travesty that we do not hear as much about business’ role in successful immigration as we should. I think that this is attributable to the widespread ignorance and paranoia that infuses so much of the national conversation about business. As the presidential election season kicks into high gear, we hear plenty — at least from the left — tying business with greed, and the need for higher taxes and more regulations due to “income inequality.” It is often accompanied, distressingly, by pronouncements of the glories of socialism. These same positions will often be held by those who profess to be “pro-immigration.”

The irony is, if you are anti-business, then you are anti-immigrant.

Laura Hollis

Laura Hollis

Laura Hollis is a syndicated columnist and teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship at Notre Dame Law School. Read here previous columns here.