Rafi Rodriguez, CEO of Rodriguez Financial Strategies and former president of the Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has a unique understanding of the loyalty that many South American immigrants feel toward their adopted country. Though an American citizen—he was born in Puerto Rico—Rodriguez’s Hispanic roots have given him great cultural fluency. While in the Air Force, he worked for the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA), a partnership between the United States and North American militaries. During his tenure as an Air Force colonel, Rodriguez traveled throughout Latin America, providing logistical and technological guidance to foreign militaries, often working with their top brass.
Immigrant GIs don’t just give their heart out because it’s a path to citizenship, but because they believe in the military.
“Here’s this guy from the beach in Puerto Rico sitting beside a four-star general, translating everything for him,” Rodriguez recalls. “My Hispanic culture literally became a bridge. I was with the high rollers, in the middle, making it happen.”
During his military service, Rodriguez saw the unique dedication among non-native U.S. soldiers. “In Latin America, they don’t have the same trust in their institutions that we do in ours,” he says. “They see the military as the utmost respected institution in the United States, so when they come here, they really want to serve. Immigrant GIs don’t just give their heart out because it’s a path to citizenship, but because they believe in the military. They trust it.”
As of 2009, more than 100,000 military service members were foreign-born and 12 percent were not U.S. citizens, according to the Immigration Policy Center. The largest segment of these service members hailed from Latin America.
Rodriguez eventually left the military, but continued to act as a bridge. He became president of the Dayton’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Hispanic Chamber. At both institutions, he helped Hispanic immigrants integrate into the American business community. “These people have phenomenal business talent,” Rodriguez says. While they represent only 3.4 percent of Ohio’s population, they’ve driven what Rodriguez calls “a surge of small businesses” across the state. Between 2002 and 2007, Hispanic businesses grew 37 percent and increased employment at a rate of nearly 2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners.
Rodriguez says Governor John Kasich helped fuel this growth through his support of minority business owners. “There was a mandate by Kasich,” says Rodriguez. “He wanted every agency to set aside 15 percent of their contracts for minorities. He said, ‘you will comply.’ The agencies took it very seriously. That’s a path for success.” And not just for the individual entrepreneurs but for the state as a whole. “America was built by businesses,” Rodriguez says. So the more politicians provide immigrants a pathway for economic success, the more they will invest in the country and its welfare. “Immigrants want everything that Americans do,” says Rodriguez. “Good housing, good neighborhoods, good education, good income.”