Oswaldo “Boler” Castellanos, a Guatemalan immigrant, is pleased with the opportunities that have come his way. But he knows that many others who want an opportunity to create a new life are denied that chance. “I want to show that we are coming here to work hard,” he says.
Castellanos came to the United States in 2007 after marrying an American missionary working in Guatemala. He knew no English, and his wife’s family emphasized the importance of learning the language to succeed. So Castellanos enrolled in a three-month intensive literacy program in Springfield, Ohio, and an ESL (English as a Second Language) program at Wright State University, in Dayton. He then enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his wife was starting a PhD program in nutrition and food systems.
He was able to transfer some of the credits he had earned while attending law school in Guatemala, and in 2009 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international studies.
I want to show that we are coming here to work hard.
The couple moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Castellanos, who’d enjoyed working on cars as a teenager, found work as a mechanic. In 2013, his wife was offered a professorship at the University of Dayton, so they returned to Springfield. There, with financial help from his brother-in-law, Castellanos opened his own garage. At first, he worried about his lack of local contacts, but four years later, the business is growing. He employs two people, including another Guatemalan immigrant.
Springfield became a Welcoming City in 2014, which means the local government has partnered with the national nonprofit Welcoming America to provide free English lessons, education about city life and culture, and advocacy services. The goal is to attract immigrants as a way to revitalize the economy, because in recent years the native-born population has plummeted. Castellanos says Springfield’s welcoming status helped him feel supported and accepted, which, in turn, enabled him to grow his business. In other words, welcoming immigrants works.
Castellanos is one of 2.9 million immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States, according to research by New American Economy. In fact, from 1996 to 2011, the number of new immigrant-owned businesses grew by 50 percent, while, in sharp contrast, the number of new native-owned businesses declined by 10 percent.
Of course, Castellanos still faces challenges. Some people assume he’s in the country illegally. “They make a judgment based on our appearance, without even knowing our background,” he says. Some people also assume that Hispanic immigrants steal American jobs. But NAE research shows that 10.6 percent of Hispanic immigrants start their own businesses, and immigrant entrepreneurs actually create an estimated 5.9 million jobs for Americans.
Castellanos became a U.S. citizen in 2015. The process was fairly straightforward for him because he was married to an American and had permanent residency status. But before he was married, he was rejected twice for a fiancé visa. Each time, he had to pay a nonrefundable fee and attend an interview. And after each denial, he had to wait a year before reapplying. He says that the process is difficult, expensive, and lengthy, and he understands why it “encourages undocumented entry.”
Castellanos says it can be difficult for many immigrants because they do not know where to go to learn the language, find local services, or make the right connections. He considers himself fortunate that his brother-in-law provided help. “When the system gives you the opportunity to grow, I am very thankful,” he says. “But it is hard to access the system. Most of us want to show that we don’t have many opportunities where we came from, and we are coming here to work hard.”