There is a robust African community in Dallas and my wife has been on a kick lately for Ethiopian restaurants, to which there are many. Being that we are married, well, I get to tag along.
The last restaurant we went to was not Ethiopian, but Eritrean, which was a part of Ethiopia but broke away in the early 1990s after a decades long civil war. After our meal, the owner approached us to ask if we liked our meal.
We assured him that we did, and then the topic of how and why he opened his business came up. It turns out that he and his wife came to the U.S. three years ago via the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, a government lottery program for receiving lawful permanent residency, informally known as a “green card.”
The Essence of America
He was a lawyer and a judge back in Eritrea. While I will not use the same terminology as our president in describing any country (President Lyndon B. Johnson referred to Vietnam as “that damn little pissant country.”), I can tell you that a casual reading about Eritrea indicates that it is a very repressive country, rivaling that of North Korea.
But what impressed me most about our host was his positive outlook about this country and becoming an American. To him, America was still very much the land of opportunity, of freedom, and where hard work would pay off for him and his family. He had every intention of living the American Dream.
Back in the car driving home, I told my wife, “My God, we need more people like this in this country, not less. This man represents the lifeblood of America, the essence of what this country is about. We cannot lose this or we will lose ourselves."
If you look at our history, we have had our share of nativist movements. The subscribers of this organized xenophobia hold a shared belief that immigrants pose a threat.
During the late 1840s and the early 1850s, there was The Know-Nothing Party, also known as the American Party, empowered by fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Catholic immigrants who were hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. The Irish in particular were singled out. (Watch the movie Gangs of New York.)
In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, also known as the “Asian Exclusion Act,” and in 1882, it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was renewed in 1892 and 1902. In 1890, Wisconsin passed an act known as the ” Bennett Law,” which threatened to close hundreds of German-language elementary schools.
In the 1920s after World War I, the nativists focused their attention on Catholics, Jews, and south-eastern Europeans. A book by Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, gained notoriety, in which Grant argued that the American racial stock was being diluted by an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
In the 21st century, the Tea Party shifted its primary focus from deficit reduction to immigration, declaring President Obama’s decision to enact immigration reform through his executive powers as “amnesty for millions, tyranny for all.”
Which brings us to today’s political climate.
But before I go there, how about a few facts to chew on? President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and, indeed, they are. But sometimes, they show us the way.
Analyzing data for 2017, the Center for American Entrepreneurship found that 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded or co-founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. CAE found that the occurrence of first- or second-generation immigrant founders is significantly higher among the largest Fortune 500 companies – accounting for 52 percent of the top 25 firms and 57 percent of the top 35 firms.
Immigrant-founded Fortune 500 firms are headquartered in 33 of the 50 states, employ 12.8 million people worldwide, and accounted for $5.3 trillion in global revenue in 2016.
These American powerhouse companies founded by immigrants or their children include Dow, AT&T, DuPont, Levi Strauss, Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, Sun Microsystems, Google, Yahoo, eBay, YouTube, PayPal, Tesla, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
What the heck, let’s name a few more – Home Depot, United Parcel Service, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, Procter & Gamble, Comcast, Kraft Heinz, Lockheed Martin, Merk, Costco, Apple, Walt Disney, and the current holiest of holies, Amazon.
Job Creators on Main Street and Wall Street
Immigrant entrepreneurs have also made their mark their mark on Main Street. Among small U.S. businesses, almost 20 percent were founded by immigrants.
At a time when the number of new firms as a percentage of all firms has fallen near a four-decade low, immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business. Though just 14 percent of the population, they account for a quarter of all business owners.
According to an analysis by U.S. News and World Report, immigrant small businesses are responsible for 10 million jobs in this country. If you extrapolate that to large businesses, it means immigrants and the children of immigrants are responsible for 50 million jobs. That’s 40 percent of all jobs attributable to less than 14 percent of the population. That, my friends, is economic development.
Think about that Eritrean restaurant owner in Dallas for a moment. The idea of leaving one’s home country to go to a different country, with a different language and culture, that in itself is the epitome of risk taking. That takes, forgive me for using a rather course but accurate Mexican-American slang word, cojones.
Pushing Entrepreneurs Away
In his State of the Union speech, President Trump stressed the need for a “merit-based immigration system — one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country.”
And yet, the Trump administration is considering rescinding the International Entrepreneur Rule (IER), which allows foreign entrepreneurs to build their businesses in the United States if they meet certain criteria and are vetted by the Department of Homeland Security.
In a letter to the president, the National Venture Capital Association, along with 31 other business groups, urged the president not to rescind the IER.
“Twenty years ago, our country’s share of global venture investment was 90 percent, but that number has dropped precipitously to 81 percent in 2006 and to 53 percent in 2017. In 2016, China was home to six of the 10 largest venture capital investments in the world. If we continue to push entrepreneurs overseas, our share of global investment will continue to decrease.”
In a recent analysis of a immigration reform plan offered by the White House, the Cato Institute concluded, “The plan would cut the number of legal immigrants by up to 44% or half a million immigrants annually—the largest policy-driven legal immigration cut since the 1920s. Compared to current law, it would exclude nearly 22 million people from the opportunity to immigrate legally to the United States over the next five decades.”
Note that we are talking about legal immigrants.
Nativism, the basis of which is prejudice against immigrants due to their color, ethnic and religious backgrounds or country of origin, does not make logical sense. It certainly makes no economic sense.
And it is also counter to who we are as a people. I actually believe in American exceptionalism. I believe in the everlasting dream, the promise of America. If you take that dream away, we are no longer what Ronald Regan called “that shining city on a hill.” We're just another country.
I’ll see you down the road.