In August 2017, Salvador Ayala fulfilled a lifelong dream. The Bucks County, Pennsylvania, business owner purchased a house for his family — in cash. “That was a huge accomplishment for me,” says Ayala, a former undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who now owns Sal Home Improvement, a painting and remodeling company in Levittown that employs up to eight contractors and has 75 clients.
Ayala is one of 2,341 foreign-born entrepreneurs living in Pennsylvania’s Eighth Congressional District, where immigrants own more than 15,000 homes and pay $695.6 million in taxes each year. Although immigrants in the district make up only 8 percent of the population, they are 20 percent more likely than U.S.-born residents to own their own businesses.
Ayala was 16 years old when he and his father came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, arriving first in Dallas. Both father and son worked in landscaping, but Ayala found very little opportunity in Dallas, so the following year he moved to Bensalem, Pennsylvania, to join relatives.
After working in demolition for three months, Ayala got a job at a painting company, where he worked from 1993 to 2006. During that time, his level of responsibility increased. He began managing a crew of employees, but realized he didn’t share his boss’s management style. “I’m the type to always double-check, but I don’t need to be on someone’s back,” he says. “I realized that I knew how to manage a team of people, and I decided I could do this on my own.” Running his own business was a challenge at first. “It was difficult starting from zero after getting regular pay for my work. I didn’t have workers. I didn’t have clients,” he says.
He began supplementing his income with work from another company while developing his business. In 2008, in the wake of the economic downturn, he decided to expand his skills and taught himself how to remodel, learning from YouTube videos and experimenting with small projects. “I started doing little projects with my clients with molding. I kept trying new things and didn’t put limits on myself,” he says. By 2010, the business was self-sustaining. By 2017, Ayala was billing enough to employ four to eight contractors. “I’m proud of what I have learned to do on my own. I’m proud that my clients are always happy with my work and have no complaints,” he says.
He is also grateful to live in the country that made his success possible. “There are so many opportunities for those who want to work,” he says. “The United States is the country of opportunity.” Today, Ayala is married to a U.S. citizen and is raising three American children with his wife.
Ayala would like to see immigration reform that recognizes and welcomes the hard work and talent of new Americans. He thinks many immigration rules are unduly harsh, such as the three- or ten-year bans on re-entering the country for people who previously overstayed a visa or entered illegally. It leaves those who qualify for green cards in a Catch-22: They have to leave the United States to apply for their green card from abroad, but once they leave they are immediately barred from re-entering the country.
“I don’t think we should bar people for minor offenses,” says Ayala. He also thinks the evaluation process should be more comprehensive and focus on each individual’s situation: Does he have a family? Is she willing to work hard? “I agree that criminals should not be able to stay, but other people should have more consideration,” he says. In short, he hopes more families will have the same opportunities that he found in his adopted home: “I’m very grateful to be here in the United States and building the future that I dreamed of,” he says.