Owning a beauty salon in Brooklyn, I’m proud to be an American small business owner. With the release of a bi-partisan immigration reform bill by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” this week, I’m also proud to be part of a longstanding Brooklyn tradition – the tradition of immigrant job creators.
Indeed, while the debate over immigration reform is often overshadowed by anti-immigrant attack lines about immigrants “taking our jobs,” here in my community immigrant business owners have been turning that line on its head for generations: instead of taking jobs, immigrant business owners like me are on the front lines of creating them.
I left my home in Puebla, Mexico with my husband in 1996 to build a better life for my family. I came to this country bringing my skills as a business woman and my perseverance to succeed. After 15 years of hard work, last year I finally had enough saved up to strike out on my own and start my beauty salon.
When we opened our doors, I knew my business would rise or fall on the contributions of my employees and the support of my local community. The truth is our local economy could use a boost. I believe immigration reform – reform with citizenship, reform that places a priority on reuniting families so workers can focus on doing their jobs and business owners can focus on building our businesses – can provide that boost.
Politicians are quick to recognize that small businesses are the engine of the American economy. But they often overlook this fact: the entrepreneurs building these businesses are, disproportionately, immigrants.
In fact, 18 percent of small business owners in the U.S. are immigrants. That’s higher than the immigrant share of the population (13 percent) or labor force (16 percent). Here in New York state, the figure is much higher: 29 percent of small business owners are immigrants.
Walk down any street in this neighborhood and it’s clear that immigrants are essential to the economy. I’m not the exception, I’m the rule. And that’s true not just here in New York City, either. From San Francisco’s Chinatown to Boston’s Italian North End to small towns from rural Iowa to rural Idaho, immigrants are building businesses, revitalizing communities and creating jobs in local economies.
In addition to our role as entrepreneurs, immigrants’ labor and purchasing power are important economic drivers, too. My business can only succeed if I have a strong local customer base. In this community, like so many across the country, there are thousands of willing workers who are being held back from working, earning a paycheck, and paying into local economies only because they can’t get working papers.
Some of my customers are caught in this Catch-22. These are mothers and sisters who struggle to get by and support their families. They’re aspiring Americans, but there’s no line for them to get into to get on the path to citizenship and nowhere to turn for help. As a moral nation, how can we turn our backs on them? As a practical one, why would we turn our backs when it’s shooting our economic future in the foot?
If we’re serious about encouraging entrepreneurship and job creation across America, we need to get serious about immigration reform. Comprehensive reform, with a roadmap to citizenship and a commitment to strong families, will clear the way for a new generation of immigrant entrepreneurs to start businesses, create jobs, and rebuild communities.
Sitting in my beauty shop and chatting with my employees and customers, we all know comprehensive immigration reform makes sense for our local economy. It’s simple common sense. It’s time for Congress to get the memo from Main Street, follow the bi-partisan leadership of the “Gang of Eight” Senators, and get to work.
• Mary Guitierrez is the owner of Lupita’s Beauty Salon in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. She worked as a hair stylist for 10 years before starting her own business in 2012. She now has three employees.