Wilma Cartagena grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Washington state when she was 22 years old, still struggling to learn English. “People always tell me I have an accent, and they can be so dismissive,” says Cartagena, who went on to earn a degree from the University of Maryland. Now, as vice president of the North Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Cartagena sees U.S. immigration policy exhibit a similar kind of dismissiveness, at least when it comes to the unmet potential of many Hispanic businesses.
More than 10 percent of Hispanic arrivals to the United States become entrepreneurs, and many are undocumented immigrants. “I’ve seen people who work in the orchards becoming managers or actually owning the orchard, or they go from picking asparagus to owning an asparagus farm,” says Cartagena.
We want businesses to create jobs, and undocumented immigrants can’t realize their potential if they’re living in fear and living in the shadows.
But these entrepreneurs are often stymied by their legal status. Banks traditionally won’t give loans to undocumented immigrants, making it difficult for the company to to expand. “This is a huge challenge for immigrant businesses, which are usually mom-and-pop shops that stay in their communities,” says Cartagena. “They need access to capital, or else they stay small. If you sell tamales, you might have a little truck, but if you want to buy a building to build a restaurant, you can’t get any help.”
Using federal survey data, New American Economy estimates there are more than 912,000 undocumented entrepreneurs in the United States —businesses that combined generate $17.2 billion for the U.S. economy. Cartagena is an advocate of immigration reform that includes providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for a decade or more and might have children who are U.S. citizens. “They need to be able to grow and contribute to the economy,” says Cartagena. “That’s what we want. We want businesses to create jobs, and undocumented immigrants can’t realize their potential if they’re living in fear and living in the shadows.”
If Congress provided a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here, the economic benefits would be sizable. Economists estimate the rising incomes would result in an additional $1.4 trillion growth in U.S. gross domestic product and an additional $791 billion in personal income for Americans over a 10-year period.
Americans should celebrate the immigrant spirit and help people realize their potential, says Cartagena, who works as a civil rights investigator. “It takes courage to leave your country. You have to be willing to take risks and be creative to get around doors that are closed to you,” she says. “It’s amazing what immigrants are able to accomplish when they’re given the opportunity. They’ve proven that over and over.”