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Immigrants as Entrepreneurs - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33727 Broadcast May 22, 2000

Many Americans tend to think that new immigrants are naturally entrepreneurial. Perhaps that's because immigrants who open small businesses are very visible - the corner grocer, the Asian food delivery service, the local dry cleaning shop. In today's segment of New American Voices we'll hear two views on this subject.

Dr. Steven Camarota is the director of research for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. He is the author of a recently published study debunking what he calls the myth of immigrant entrepreneurs.

"Overall, if you compare adult immigrants who are working with adult persons born in the United States you find that immigrants are not more likely to operate their own businesses or to be self-employed. In fact, if anything, natives, or the native-born, are slightly more likely to."

Dr. Camarota admits that the perception of the immigrant as business-owner persists among the American public. There are reasons for this, he says.

"Yeah, I think several things explain it. One is the fact that immigrants used to be more entrepreneurial, and so that old impressions die hard, so to speak, that people may simply be attributing the attributes of older immigrants - immigrants who came 30, 40, 50 years ago - to immigrants who are coming in today. The second reason, I think, is that most people are just more likely to come in contact with entrepreneurs, so that the person who runs the restaurant and greets patrons every day is much more likely to be remembered than all the dishwashers and cooks in the back. And finally, I think the fact is that some groups do have very high rates of self-employment and business ownership, and those traits for Koreans or Middle Easterners and so forth may simply be attributed to all immigrants by mistake."

Still, there is evidence that many immigrants are continuing the entrepreneurial tradition of past generations. Tom Davis is a Republican representative to the United States Congress from Virginia who has considerable experience with the impact of immigration on businesses in his state.

"One out of five residents of my congressional district over the age of 25 was born in a foreign country. So it's had a tremendous impact out in the northern Virginia suburbs. It has brought on a fora of small businesses. A lot of these folks are very hard working, own their own small business, it has brought a new group of entrepreneurs - and homeowners -out into the District."

In northern Virginia, says Congressman Davis, the impact of immigrant entrepreneurs has been particularly strong in the field of technology. There is even an organization of Chief Executive Officers of local computer-related companies called " CEOs From India".

"This is the India high-tech group, and they get several hundred people out to their meetings. These are folks who have come from India and have settled here and have been successful business-wise. It's a great network opportunity for all Indo-Americans to come and network - and now people like me show up too, it's great politics as well."

The northern Virginia area, near Washington, that Congressman Davis represents attracts immigrants from many different ethnic groups. Networking among themselves helps them establish a more powerful presence in particular business sectors.

"There are obviously a lot of Asian owners of businesses out there in the technology industry. A lot of your mom and pop shops and dry cleaners tend to be Korean. It's hard to go into an office building now where they don't have a place where you go to have sandwiches and soda that's not owned by Vietnamese now."

Congressman Tom Davis says that in general the immigrants bring to their new lives in the United States something many other Americans have lost.

"They bring with them something that my kids don't have, and that I didn't have, and that's the pioneer spirit. Something that we thought was lost when America stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. The pioneer spirit is back with these immigrants. It's a can-do attitude, it's a great faith in the system, it's a work ethic that I think is the envy of the rest of us."

The pioneer spirit that Congressman Tom Davis talks about is not limited to immigrant business-owners. Next week on New American Voices we'll talk with three students of different ethnic backgrounds who exemplify that can-do attitude.