Mexican immigrant Estela Nava has owned a hair salon on the South Side of Chicago for 30 years. Every day she tends to her clients’ needs for haircuts, color treatments, and perms. For Nava, who came to Chicago as an undocumented immigrant at age 17, owning her own business means freedom. She enjoys being her own boss, setting her own hours, and selecting her clients. Most importantly, her entrepreneurship has also meant freedom from unscrupulous bosses who take advantage of the most vulnerable, including the undocumented.
“I decided to have my own business to prove to myself that immigrants can do good things and make a difference,” says Nava. She started from the bottom, working as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant before working her way up to waitress and eventually putting herself through cosmetology school. “Also, I didn’t want be treated the way I was before. My other boss tried to make us work overtime and then yelled at us. Immigrants are humans too. We need to be treated with respect.”
Nava wants to see immigration reform that gives the estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrations already living and working in the United States a pathway to permanent residency status — thereby better protecting them from labor exploitation. “Undocumented people are forced to take any job in restaurants, construction, or housekeeping. They can be abused. They might have to work many hours. They might not get a lunch break or even be allowed to use the bathroom,” says Nava, who fell in love and married a U.S. citizen. She became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
I decided to have my own business to prove to myself that immigrants can do good things and make a difference.
Having legal status also makes it easier for immigrants like Nava to start their own business, giving them access to capital and credit with which to start new stores and restaurants. Entrepreneurship is a well-worn path for immigrants to gain a toehold in the U.S. economy. There were about 3 million immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States in 2014, a year in which foreign-born U.S. entrepreneurs generated more than $65 billion in business income. Immigrants’ entrepreneurial streak also makes them more likely to start businesses than U.S.-born residents. Between 1996 and 2011, the rate at which the founding of new business by immigrants grew was 50 percent, while the rate at which the U.S.-born did actually declined, by 10 percent.
Nava believes that reform should help all immigrants — business owners and employees, documented and undocumented — integrate into U.S. society so they can reach their potential. In Illinois’ Second Congressional District, where Nava lives, more than 46,600 immigrants held $883.3 million in spending power and paid $321.7 million in taxes in 2014.
Nava has started working as a volunteer to help educate immigrants about their rights and how to survive in an increasingly hostile society. “I tell kids that they have to study so they can have a better life. I tell them that I was once illegal, but I did something good,” she says. “We can all help each other get ahead.”