Thirty years ago, Fanny Smedile left behind a successful cafe she owned in Ecuador to flee an abusive husband. Despite knowing no English, she applied for a visa to join a cousin in New Jersey and found work there as a nanny and housekeeper, including for a professional football player. One phrase at a time — “peanut butter,” “grilled cheese,” “hot dog” — she learned the language and, like so many immigrants before her, bootstrapped her new life in America.
Soon Smedile was opening another business, this time a daycare facility in Virginia, where she had moved with her new husband. “I really liked being my own boss,” she says. Her gumption comes as little surprise: Nationwide, immigrants are 28 percent more likely to open their own businesses than are the U.S.-born, making them critical job creators in the American economy. In 2007, 5.9 million people were employed at private, immigrant-owned firms.
In fact, Smedile’s story typifies the immigrant experience in several ways. After closing her daycare and launching a nonprofit, Smedile also took extra work as a housekeeper and as an elder caretaker — low-skill positions that employers often have difficulty filling and that immigrants step in to fill. In Smedile’s home state of Virginia, for example, there are four open healthcare jobs in the state for every available healthcare worker and demands on the healthcare system are only expected to increase as the U.S. population ages. Already, one out of every seven U.S.-born residents in Virginia is over the age of 65.
We clean the houses, and take care of the kids as nannies, all for little money because we need the job.
Smedile spends her mornings working as a private caregiver for a 101-year-old woman and afternoons works at her nonprofit, Sin Barreras (without barriers). The nonprofit’s mission is meaningful to her — she connects immigrants in Charlottesville with services to help them thrive — but running it provides her with little to no pay.
“The sacrifices I had to make and the struggles I went through while working full time, with a family, and starting this organization, which I worked on during evenings and weekends, was difficult, intimidating, and a lot of hard work,” she says. “But I did it because I cared and I believed in the mission.”
The immigrants Smedile helps comprise a critical component of the workforce in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, where she lives. Although immigrants make up only 4.3 percent of the population, they constitute 11.6 percent of the workforce in agriculture and 9.6 percent of the workforce in services in the food, accommodation, arts, and entertainment industries. “They work at farms, landscaping. They own their own restaurants and painting and construction businesses,” says Smedile. “I know for a fact they pay taxes. And yet they live in fear.” To be exact, immigrants in her district paid $230.2 million in taxes in 2014 and held $633.4 million in spending power.
If a pathway existed for undocumented immigrants to gain a legal way to work in the United States, not only would families be able to stay together but more people could drive, work, and shop more easily, she says, all net benefits to the economy. “And it would be very helpful for the community.” At the end of the day, she points out, these are just people who are trying to work hard and do their best — often at jobs that Americans don’t want. “We clean the houses, and take care of the kids as nannies, all for little money because we need the job,” says Smedile. “With that money we can pay rent, provide for our kids.”