Opinion: New American Immigrants Hold the Key to Economic Growth

If you've seen a "Now Hiring" sign in front of a new business lately, the odds are good that an immigrant is at the helm.

America's immigrants opened more than a quarter of all new businesses in 2011, and per capita, they're more than twice as likely to do so as people who were born here. During a time of persistently high unemployment, immigrant-owned businesses are responsible for 4 million U.S. jobs.

Those are among the findings in the latest report from the Partnership for a New American Economy, spearheaded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Here's another: One in every 10 private-business employee works for an immigrant-led company.

The American economy is slowly getting back on its feet, and immigrant entrepreneurs are helping pick it up and dust it off.

That immigrants are breathing new life into our economy and our country is nothing new; generations of new Americans have sought the same freedom to strive for a better life that you and I, their descendants, call the American Dream.

But immigrants are sparking our economic growth like never before, as the partnership's report shows. And they are doing so at a critical time, just as 10,000 baby boomers per day turn 65 — a number that will remain steady for the next 18 years.

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As the baby boom generation retires, immigrant entrepreneurs will be critical to the health of our economy, as well as the scope of American economic opportunity. In fact, they already are.

Immigrants' business start-up rate soared 50 percent between 1996 and 2011, while the start-up rate among U.S. natives dropped 10 percent. And in 2010, amid a recession, companies owned by new Americans generated $775 billion in revenue and $109 billion in income, the latter a 60 percent increase since 2000, according to the report.

Those are not trivial numbers.

New Americans are not only opening businesses and creating jobs, but doing so in growth industries — seven of the eight sectors that the government expects to grow most quickly this decade. From retail trade to health care, from construction to business services, they are triggering growth across the worker spectrum.

Many of today's immigrant entrepreneurs will be tomorrow's success stories. Look no further than Natalia Luis and Cidalia Luis-Akbar, sisters whose father was ahead of the construction curve when he started his road-paving business M. Luis Construction in 1985.

There is nothing more American than the story of Natalia and Cidalia, who were born in Portugal and now are the company's president and vice president, respectively. Their father started the business 27 years ago with "a wheelbarrow and a pickup truck." It grossed $83,000 its first year.

As of 2010, M. Luis Construction employed 143 people and brought in $54 million, and it was continuing to grow. The company currently employs 215 people. "Only in America can dreams like ours come to fruition," Cidalia was quoted as saying in a 2011 article in Washington Smart CEO.

Natalia Luis, who is in charge of estimating and operations, knows how to run every piece of equipment her company owns — and she is known for running paving equipment in stilettos when she visits worksites.

The sisters are both known for treating their employees well, and their company's success has allowed them to give plenty back to their community. Their support helped create a fetal medicine division at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, and they also support education causes.

In short, they're a shining example of new Americans who help our economy, our communities and our culture shine a good deal brighter. We should be helping the Luis sisters in our midst start businesses and create jobs, not hindering them by limiting business visas, creating bureaucratic hurdles and, in the case of some states, creating hostile environments that turn immigrants away.

Especially as our native-born population skews older, we should demand that Congress develop a legal immigration process that encourages this kind of immigration and the economic benefits it generates.

Stilettos are optional as we pave the way toward a brighter economic future in America. But new Americans are essential.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Noorani has more than a decade of successful leadership in public-policy advocacy, nonprofit management, and coalition organizing across a wide range of issues.