Carlos Castro thought coming to America would free him from life in war-torn El Salvador. But after paying someone $800 to help him cross the border in 1979, Castro was caught by immigration officers and spent 45 days in a detention facility. "My dreams of being in the U.S. or being safe were suddenly cut off," Castro said.
He kept trying. Castro went on to not only realize those dreams, but to attain the so-called American Dream. Soon after being deported, he returned to the U.S. in 1980, became a citizen in 1990 and started Todos Supermarket, which specializes in Hispanic foods and services. Today his company earns $18 million annually and employs 140 people.
Immigrants are now twice as likely to start a new business as someone born in the U.S. But would Castro be able to achieve his level of success if he immigrated today, given the government crackdown on undocumented immigrants, passage of strict state rules in light of the lack of federal immigration reform and the Supreme Court's recent split ruling on Arizona's controversial immigration law?
"Conditions are much worse. I don't think I would have had the same opportunities that luckily I had 30-something years ago," Castro said. "I believe nothing is impossible, but it would be nearly impossible the way things are now."
Castro recently spoke with HuffPost Small Business about why he wants to give back to the country that gave him a new life, and how current laws restrain his ability to create jobs.
What was it like growing up in El Salvador?
My family had 10 children living in a two-room house without running water or a sewer system. We had to work from an early age, running errands for neighbors. After sixth grade, I attended school at night so I could work as a laborer during the day.
How did you escape that cycle of poverty?
My father told us that to succeed, we needed to read a lot, because knowledge was already in books. The book "You Can Become The Person You Want To Be" [by Robert H. Schuller] convinced me that success was a matter of how much effort I put into my life. I graduated from high school with honors. And I was extremely happy with my job as a technician.
Coming to the U.S. was never in my plans. But the [Salvadoran civil] war was taking a turn for worse. There were kidnappings, and my town was taken over by guerrillas. You could feel bullets flying around you. Being immersed in that environment for so many years was getting to be too much. A family friend offered to help me with the expenses to come to the U.S. I found someone bringing people from El Salvador all the way to Texas, but we got stopped on the way to L.A.
How did you come back?
Someone was helping my cousin come this way, so I tagged along. I am a man of faith and I knew that God would provide us the way if he wanted us to get through. We crossed the border to Tijuana and from there went to L.A, then Washington [D.C.], where I worked for an architect as a laborer, then a carpenter, then a foreman. The architect sponsored my wife as a maid, and it was through my wife that me and my kid got residency in 1985. We went back to El Salvador to see the consulate and then had to ask the U.S government for forgiveness. After five years of being residents, we became U.S. citizens.
How did you feel becoming a U.S. citizen?
A big sense of pride. Here, your vote, your voice counts, and you can get anything accomplished. I thought, this is a great opportunity to make the best of this. I set up a remodeling company, then started the grocery store so my wife could run it rather than cleaning houses. In 1992, I abandoned my construction business to run the grocery store. We predicted that because of the low cost of housing and the proximity to D.C., this area would become a hub for immigrants. We started at 2,500 square feet, then because of the demand we moved to 5,000 square feet in 1996, then again in 2001 to 18,000 square feet. Our final move to 52,000 square feet was to serve the entire community, not just my Hispanic customer base.
Did owning a business feel like the American Dream?
Absolutely. By age 48, I owned a house and owned a business, which gave me the opportunity to help others achieve their dreams, the way I was helped by other people. I'm on the board of the community college and the hospital, and I'm involved in the political world, making sure we can represent the Hispanic community. I always prayed to God that if I had the opportunity to make money, to keep me humble and give me the strength to help other people.
Do you think recent state laws targeting immigrants are stifling those kinds of opportunities?
I think they're creating confusion. I've seen people change from seeing Latinos' potential to being suspicious. One day I was walking out of a pharmacy, and somebody said to me, "You guys are up to no good." She didn't know I was a U.S. citizen. She just put that label on me. We're made to feel that we're an underclass, even if we're successful professionals. Although I have always tried to ignore it, it's there.
How are you participating politically in this issue?
I have mainly given my opinion to legislators, participating in forums or town hall meetings in hopes that one day we'll find a magic bullet that will bring about a solution. Hopefully before the election, one of the candidates will come up with a plan that works.
How do immigration policies affect your hiring? Are you able to help others the way the architect helped you?
In the past, we could hire people and apply for certifications the way my wife and I became citizens, but I can't do that because of new regulations. I want to go out tomorrow and hire 10 people -- I just can't because of the laws in place.
I interviewed a young lady this week and determined she didn't have a work permit or social security. I had to explain to her that my hands are tied. It was hard -- I came here illegally and had to tell her I couldn't hire her because she [didn't have documentation]. It's something we run into every day. It's very difficult, knowing there are good people who deserve a job, need to raise their kids, and chances are, they can't get a job. It brings tears to my eyes.
Name: Carlos Castro
Company: Todos Supermarket
Location: Two locations, in Woodbridge and Dumfries, Va.
2012 Projected Revenue: $18 million