Abdul Arif grew up in a middle-class family in Hyderabad, India, and came to Wichita, Kansas, at 17 to join his brother, who was a naturalized citizen. He’d hoped to get an education in America, but things didn’t go as planned: Arif dropped out of high school, got married, and worked in restaurants and factories for several years before starting his own small business. Fast forward three and a half decades, and Arif, now 57, is a successful lawyer, entrepreneur, and real-estate developer who’s created an estimated 500 jobs and founded a free medical clinic that treats around 1,000 uninsured patients a year. “I always tell my kids, America is God’s gift to humanity,” he says. “You can truly do whatever you want, if you apply yourself.”
Arif credits his success to good fortune and a good work ethic. His first lucky break came when a local factory owner spotted him waiting tables and handed him a business card. “He was impressed by how fast I worked,” Arif explains. Soon Arif had a job in the man’s factory, making parts for aircraft. The company struggled, though, and in 1981 Arif was laid off. “I was back out on the street,” he says. “You’ve got to hustle, so I was doing yard work, cutting grass, whatever I could do.”
It’s not a zero-sum game. If immigrants win, it doesn’t mean natives and long-time residents have to lose.
It was then that Arif and his wife decided to launch a tailoring business, working out of their apartment and taking in clothes from friends and neighbors. Arif’s wife was a skilled seamstress, and word soon got around. By the following year, the pair had enough regular customers to open a small shop in a nearby strip mall.
The next 15 years were “kind of a blur,” Arif says, with the family opening another eight shops in quick succession. “We got really busy — I’d build up one shop, and we’d open another. It just grew and grew,” he says. Along the way, Arif acquired a convenience store, a pizza restaurant, and two dry-cleaning businesses; soon, he was employing over 100 people. “I did whatever I could — a business here and a business there,” he says. “Life was good, and I was making great money.”
That allowed Arif to put his son through law school. But watching his son graduate and collect a diploma made Arif regret that he’d never finished high school himself. “It occurred to me I was an uneducated bum, and didn’t know a whole lot about anything,” he laughs. With his wife helping to manage the family businesses, Arif went to night school to earn his GED, then earned a degree in business administration, and, finally, a law degree of his own.
Arif worked briefly for two law firms before opening his own legal practice, all while continuing to run his other businesses. These days, he employs 45 people at his tailor shops and pizzeria, and has gone into real estate development, where he builds warehouses, offices, and retail spaces in the Wichita area. He employs several dozen full-time workers through the realty operations, adding hundreds more when construction is underway. He also recently bought a Huddle House franchise, which he expects to employ about 50 people.
One of Arif’s proudest achievements, though, is the Mayflower Clinic, a medical facility staffed almost entirely by immigrant volunteers, where people without health insurance can receive free treatment. Arif owns the building, and raises money from the local business community to operate the clinic. A team of doctors and nurses volunteer their services. “I wanted to figure out a way for high-achieving immigrants to give back,” Arif explains. “It’s about caring through action.”
Arif hopes the clinic and his businesses serve as a reminder that immigrants can and do strengthen American communities. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, nearly 20 percent of physicians practicing in the United States are foreign-born, and they serve a critical role in areas that do not attract enough U.S.-born doctors. In addition, Kansas’s 6,859 immigrant entrepreneurs employ 31,102 people and generate business income of $132.9 million annually, according to New American Economy data. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” Arif says. “If immigrants win, it doesn’t mean natives and long-time residents have to lose.”
That doesn’t mean Arif wants to throw open the borders to everyone. He thinks immigrants should find a legal way to enter the United States, and should adjust to the American way of life when they arrive. “I can see some logic in what the people who surround Trump are saying — we need to take a breather, and make sure people are assimilating,” he says. “We want people who’ll do right by us.”
The key, Arif argues, is making sure that those who move to America are conscientious, hardworking people who’ll make a real contribution. He’d like to see a merit-based immigration system, where people with needed skills or financial resources are given a simple, hassle-free way to immigrate. “You can’t be just straight up closed borders or open borders — there’s a lot of nuance in between,” he says.