When Bernie Moreno’s mother decided to leave her native Colombia and bring her seven children, husband, and 22 suitcases to the United States, it wasn’t to escape a life of poverty. She wanted to avoid a life of entitlement. Worried that her children would grow up too comfortable in an upper-class society with a father who was the country’s secretary of health, she wanted them to get an education and develop their careers.
“She was worried that we wouldn’t be challenged to live up to our potential,” says Moreno. His mother’s gambit paid off. After attending the University of Michigan, Moreno climbed the ladder at several car dealerships, bought his own dealership in 2005, and now runs the Midwest’s largest luxury auto chain, which employs 600 people. In 2015, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recognized his leadership role in the Hispanic community and named him as one of its “People to Watch.”
If you went to Harvard and got a degree, that sounds like someone we want here who will make a positive contribution to the country.
In part because of his own experience building a successful life in America, Moreno says he believes that our immigration system should be reformed to reward potential immigrants for their hard work. Moreno would like to see a more rigorous selection process that evaluates potential arrivals by what they can give back to society. “The approach should be ‘What’s in it for America?’” he says. “If you went to Harvard and got a degree, that sounds like someone we want here who will make a positive contribution to the country.” He’d also like to see the government beef up enforcement of employers who break hiring laws. “Employers are often taking advantage of undocumented immigrants by paying them lower wages under the table,” says Moreno, arguing that such restrictions would protect the wages and jobs of Americans and immigrants alike. Of undocumented immigrants he says, “You end up in an underground world, where you’re vulnerable to abuse.”
Moreno also believes that there should be a pathway to residency for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States, particularly those brought to the country as children. “We can’t throw out the people who came here as children. They don’t know anyone from their home countries,” says Moreno, who’s the chairman of the board of Cleveland State University. “We need to help them come out of the shadows.”
Feeling like he fully belonged certainly helped Moreno assimilate into his new home. His family became residents shortly after arriving, and Moreno became a citizen at age 18. His mother encouraged him to learn English and even told him that the derogatory label “spic” he was called at school really meant “smart person from Colombia.” Immigration laws should protect immigrants’ interests to help them succeed. “The goal is to help them become Americans,” Moreno says.