Robert Hester has owned Hester Printing & Graphics, Inc. in Russellville since 1976. For much of that time, he’s relied on Hispanic immigrants and first-generation customers. “Their business has really helped me,” says Hester. “The invitations for quinceañeras and weddings and things like that are really big. Other people here in Russellville had never dealt with that. So as a business person, I knew that was a big opportunity.”
Hester has long had an entrepreneurial drive. He founded the business with his uncle while still in college and then took it over a few years later. In 1993, he opened a second printing business in Mexico, where he and his wife were frequent travelers. “That allowed us to see a country without being tourists,” says Hester. “We got to see how people live and came to understand why they wanted to come to the United States.” When the construction of a new poultry plant prompted an influx of immigrants to move Russellville in the early nineties, “we welcomed them,” Hester says, “because we knew they were coming to better themselves.”
Some other country will welcome those people in and then they are going to be the ones to benefit from their contributions.
Hester has learned even more about his foreign-born neighbors through working with them over the years. Many are families with kids enrolled in the local schools. Come graduation time, proud parents flock to his store to print graduation party invitations. “You see a lot of young men with football uniforms, the girls in cheerleading and soccer uniforms,” says Hester. “Their parents encourage them to go to college and put a big emphasis on education. They want their children to have a better life than the one they had.”
A few years ago when Alabama lawmakers enacted one of the harshest immigration policies in the country, HB 56, many immigrants left Russellville. “We immediately noticed a drop in the number of walk-in customers needing copies of paperwork and sending faxes,” says Hester. “And then we realized that the growth of new businesses and the revitalization of empty buildings had slowed.” Though the bill was later gutted, Hester worries that the political rhetoric surrounding immigration could lead to similar outcomes. “That would impact the economy,” he says. “If you were to take the parents away, the children have to move. And fewer children in school means less money for the schools and fewer jobs for teachers. We just got a new Walmart Supercenter, and I doubt we’d have gotten that without the immigrant population.” It’s a reasonable conclusion. Immigrant households in Alabama’s 4th Congressional District, where Hester lives, generate more than $382 million in income and pay more that $91 million in taxes. Without those contributions, the local economy would be less prosperous.
Hester says new immigrants have also helped revitalize Russellville’s downtown. “At one time, many of the buildings around there were empty,” he says. “Then immigrants moved to the area and took old buildings that hadn’t been used for years and opened up businesses.” They’ve opened grocery and clothing stores, lawn care and roofing businesses, accounting firms, bakeries and restaurants, and car dealerships. In fact, there are more than 1,100 immigrant entrepreneurs in Hester’s district alone. And, he adds, his own printing business benefits whenever these enterprising new Americans need to advertise their services.
Hester wants immigration reform that will help immigrants emerge from the shadows. He believes a pathway to documented status for people who are here and contributing is best for families – and for the economy. “I don’t mind anyone being here because I know they are trying to better themselves,” he says. “I understand the need to have them here legally. But I hate to see anyone be afraid to go out in public or go see people and do things. Some of them, the kids are getting involved in community activities and going to the local schools and colleges while their parents are scared sitting at home.”
Failing to reform the system, Hester adds, could also cause the United States to lose its position as the most powerful country in the world. “Not allowing those people to come here will cause us to lose our edge on innovation,” he says. “Some other country will welcome those people in and then they are going to be the ones to benefit from their contributions.”