Mexican-born entrepreneur Isaac Torres came to the United States to learn English and wound up staying to found InterCambio Express, a money transfer service that now processes around $2 billion a year in transfers to countries across Latin America. Torres employs about 250 people — half in the United States, half in Mexico — and believes the growing volume of remittances he handles is an indicator of how important immigrants have become to the U.S. economy.
Growing up in Mexico City, Torres always knew he wanted to run his own business. His father, a former truck driver, had gradually built his own fleet of taxis and often told his son how happy he was to be his own boss. “He was my role model,” Torres says. “I admired him when he was giving orders and making things happen, and I wanted to be a businessman just like him.”
Torres started a couple of small businesses, including a service that made videos of quinceañeras, girls’ 15th birthday celebrations. But he wound up putting his entrepreneurial dreams on hold to work as an accountant, first for PricewaterhouseCooper and later for German multinational Hoechst AG. The money was good, but Torres knew he’d need to learn English in order to climb the corporate ladder. So he moved to America and chose to live in northern Indiana, where he figured he’d be surrounded by English speakers, and completed an MBA at Indiana University South Bend.
In Indiana, Torres realized how hard it was to send money home: When he tried to wire his sister a few dollars to buy flowers for their mother, he was given a terrible exchange rate. With Hispanic workers then flocking to Indiana to work in labor-intensive industrial jobs, Torres saw an unmet need, mapped out a business plan for a money transfer business as one of his MBA assignments, and, with the encouragement of his professors, began working to make the company a reality.
Manufacturing companies in northern Indiana are growing and growing, thanks to their Latino workers — without them…the recovery after the recession would have been very difficult.
Starting a business is far easier in America than in Mexico, Torres says, because there’s less red tape in the United States and more assistance. The Small Business Administration, for example, helps startups secure critical first loans. “Being an immigrant makes you a little more appreciative of the resources that are available in this country,” he says. “You say, Wow, there’s opportunity here, and that energizes you and energizes the people around you.”
InterCambio Express is now thriving, with services available in more than 1,500 locations in 30 states. The business gives Torres a birds-eye view of the contribution Latino workers make to the U.S. economy. He watches remittances from rural areas ebb and flow as workers move across the country for seasonal agricultural jobs. He also sees payments increase or decrease as labor-intensive industries thrive or struggle. “Latinos are a flexible workforce — if they have jobs they stay here, and if they don’t, they go back,” he explains.
In northern Indiana, immigrant labor has helped spur the recovery of the manufacturing sector, Torres says. Immigrants are in the state because there’s a need for their labor, he says. “All those companies are growing and growing, thanks to their Latino workers — without them, we wouldn’t have seen the same growth, and the recovery after the recession would have been very difficult.”
If undocumented workers had more flexibility they could better meet the shifting needs of employers throughout the country, he says, and more easily return home when fewer jobs were available. Immigration reform could achieve this. But reform would also allow workers with steady jobs to put down firmer roots and make a greater contribution to their local economies, by buying houses, or, like Torres, by starting businesses of their own. “Immigrants, because of the nature of their personality, they’re risk-takers, and they’re energized,” Torres says. “If we provide them with the tools, they’ll for sure contribute, and create more jobs.”