When Jorge Peralta was 9 years old, his mother flew him and his brother from Peru to Mexico, bundled them into the back of someone’s car in Tijuana, and told them to pretend to be asleep. Peralta remembers a border officer shining a flashlight in his face before waving the car through. When they rejoined their mother later in San Diego, she appeared tattered and bloodied from her own, more dangerous, crossing.
Now, more than three decades later, Peralta is a U.S. citizen and a successful businessman. When he sold the limousine company he founded, World Ground Inc., last year, it had 20 employees and $2.2 million in revenues. “I’m very fortunate that my parents were able to come here and give me this opportunity,” Peralta says.
The family’s journey began when Peralta’s father, an auto mechanic for Volkswagen, was offered a chance to transfer to a U.S. dealership. The rest of the family applied for visas to join him, but the visas never arrived. After two years, with Peru gripped by terrorism and food shortages, Peralta’s mother decided she couldn’t wait any longer. While Peralta and the others did eventually gain legal status through his father’s employment visa, Peralta says his dramatic journey to America has helped him understand the challenges other immigrants face. “People are literally risking their lives to come here,” he says.
While saving money for their own home, Peralta’s family lived in a tiny, sweltering, attic room above his aunt’s New Jersey apartment. There was no money for furniture, or even bedding, and for a long time Peralta’s only pillow was his beloved brown teddy bear. Often his mother would bring home Shop-Rite beans and set the open cans directly on the stove to cook. The family couldn’t afford pots or pans.
Still, Peralta’s parents considered themselves lucky, and they worked hard to improve their situation. His father would drive home after a long day at Volkswagen, meet Peralta on the street to collect a brown-bag dinner and exchange hugs, then drive off to start a second job cleaning office buildings. His mother also worked two jobs: A night-shift packing newspapers for delivery, and a morning shift delivering the same newspapers she’d packaged a few hours earlier. “They worked very hard — it was very humbling,” Peralta says.
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Soon, Peralta joined his father cleaning office buildings, pushing a vacuum while his father scrubbed toilets. “We’d get done around 10 or 11 at night, then get up in the morning for school or work,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but it gave me a sense that no matter how bad things are, you can get through them if you’re willing to work.”
It’s a lesson that’s served Peralta well. He put his college education on hold to work 16-hour days, seven days a week, as a dispatcher and managerial assistant at a limousine company where he’d started as a temp. Ten year’s later, he was a vice president overseeing 600 employees. “I worked, and worked, and worked,” he says.
In 2008, Peralta struck out on his own, launching World Ground just days before the recession hit the industry. With the economy crumbling, Peralta found himself working harder than ever to stay afloat. “It’s a 24/7 business, and I was literally working nonstop,” he says.
Over time, World Ground thrived, and in 2016 it was named New Jersey’s top transportation provider by Meetings + Events magazine. Peralta says other hardworking immigrants, attracted to the commission-based pay structure, helped fuel the company’s success. “They know that the more you work, the more you make, and that mentality lends itself very well to our industry,” he says.
It’s a mentality that also translates into economic gains for everyone. New Jersey is home to 2 million foreign-born residents, who wield $58.7 billion in spending power and pay $23.6 billion in taxes every year.
Peralta hopes his teenaged stepson will develop a strong work ethic, but he says it can be hard for some Americans to appreciate how fortunate they are. He sometimes sees immigrants cleaning his company’s offices at night, accompanied by their children, and thinks back to the days when his own parents did the same. “These are people who just want to work for a chance at a better life,” he says. “That’s an admirable trait.”
He wishes that all Americans could respect that and be more welcoming. While Peralta supports strict enforcement of immigration laws, he would also like to see a legal path created for low-skill individuals who want to move to the United States to fill the jobs that many Americans don’t want. “Legal immigration shouldn’t just be for college-educated people who want to work at Microsoft or Facebook,” he says. “There are a lot of good people, like we were, who are hardworking and want to contribute to the country.”