How Obama's New Immigration Policy Affects Social Enterprise

02/14/2013 05:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

By Jessamyn W. Rodriguez with Molly Crossin

President Obama has announced a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Referring to current immigration law as a broken system that unfairly benefits employers of undocumented workers but penalizes the workers themselves, President Obama put forth a four-part reform proposal to go into effect at the end of this year. As CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, a social purpose enterprise that enables immigrant entrepreneurs to capture their share of the billion-dollar specialty food industry, I see the third tine of President Obama's immigration policy fork -- creating a legal pathway for long-time residents to earn citizenship -- as essential to protecting human rights, driving economic growth, and ensuring ethnic, not to mention culinary, diversity in this country.

Shruti is one Hot Bread Kitchen's success stories.* Referred by an agency that helps victims of domestic violence build new lives, Shruti has parlayed her love for food and, in particular, baking delicious breads, into a management position at Hot Bread Kitchen. As a participant in our training program, Shruti received paid production training in a commercial kitchen, as well as English classes. Now she trains other bakers and is a very productive member of our staff. Fortunately for Shruti, she won the VISA lottery and is able to work here legally. The ability to earn enough money to support her family has meant that she has been able to build an independent life for her and her children. Too many other women immigrants who are victims of domestic violence don't have the freedom that a Social Security Number provides. Even if they have been here for many years, their undocumented status forces them to depend on abusive husbands for economic security, at risk to their personal security. President Obama's proposed policy brings them hope.

Along with protecting human rights, the earned citizenship portion of the plan supports economic growth by encouraging immigrants to put down roots in communities, participate in the labor force, purchase assets, and launch and grow businesses in the United States. This economic growth is an important part of the mission of Hot Bread Kitchen because we work to open pathways to professional opportunities and business ownership in the food industry for immigrant entrepreneurs. Since HBK's launch in 2007, we have catalyzed the growth of 26 immigrant-owned food businesses. One example is Taste of Ethiopia, a packaged Ethiopian food business run by Hiyaw Gebreyohannes. In less than two years in our commercial kitchen incubator, Hiyaw has developed a line of packaged products that are now sold in retailers such as Whole Foods and Fairway Markets. He has hired four employees to work directly making his products. To support his growing business, Hiyaw has partnered with local purveyors to purchase ingredients, contracted with designers and invested in packaging, thus creating jobs in other industries.

Hiyaw's story is inspiring, but by no means unique. Business ownership among immigrants has increased by 149 percent since 1980; today 30 percent of all new small business owners are immigrants (according to the U.S. Small Business Administration). These businesses in turn create jobs in related industries, helping to drive local economies. By establishing a path for immigrants to earn citizenship, President Obama will harness the energy that immigrant entrepreneurs have always brought to the United States and, in so doing, stoke a potent engine of economic growth.

Another important way that President Obama's proposed policy will enrich our society is by encouraging ethnic and, as a result, culinary diversity. Migrants to the U.S. bring vibrant cultural and culinary backgrounds that enhance America's diverse character. Hot Bread Kitchen helps to preserve traditional recipes from around the world by supporting food entrepreneurs. In our bakery, we produce a line of 35 different multi-ethnic breads inspired by the culinary cultures of the women we train.

One of our most popular breads is Moroccan M'smen, a flaky, buttery flatbread. Bouchra, a Moroccan baker who grew up making M'smen every morning for her family's breakfast, brought this recipe to us. After moving to the United States in 2004, Bouchra was unable to find a job, despite her culinary skills. She had only an elementary school education and no formal work experience. Recommended to Hot Bread Kitchen by a friend, Bouchra shared her passion for baking and her delicious Moroccan recipes with us. Working with our head baker, she scaled her recipe for M'smen. It is now a New York phenomenon sought after by restaurants, retail stores, and devoted customers at the City's greenmarkets. After completing her baking training at Hot Bread Kitchen, Bouchra obtained a position at New York City's renowned Restaurant Daniel where she is perfecting her knowledge of European loaves and continuing to share her recipes for delicious Moroccan breads. Wonderful products such as Bouchra's serve to br-educate consumers about the culinary contributions of immigrant communities. Fair immigration policy that offers a clear path to citizenship will ensure that Americans continue to reap the harvest brought by our immigrant communities.

Shruti, Hiyaw and Bouchra are legal immigrants. They are fortunate in that they were able to gain citizenship through the current system. However, there are thousands of undocumented immigrants with culinary talent and desire in this city who could move forward in the burgeoning food industry. Sadly, we can't help these people, a huge loss for them, their families, and our city. What they offer would enrich us all.

Immigration has always been -- and will remain -- a point of debate in the United States. But it is important to remember that in the past 20 years, foreign-born workers and business owners have increased disproportionately to the overall immigrant population. They are extremely active participants in the labor and business force who will thrive with forward-thinking immigration reform. This reform should create fair and timely access to the country through the U.S. immigration system, create a path to citizenship for qualified immigrants already here, and penalize employers who incentivize undocumented workers. President Obama's proposed earned citizenship will protect the rights of immigrants, encourage economic growth, and enrich America's cultural mosaic. As the founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, I support the proposed four-pronged reform policy not only for my company, but also for the women I employ and the entrepreneurs we support. Extending that vision to those whom we currently cannot work with because of their immigration status is a powerful dream, one that we can realize through fair and comprehensive immigration reform.

* Details changed to protect identity

Jessamyn W. Rodriguez has leveraged her passions for baking and social justice to found and grow the unique social-enterprise bakery Hot Bread Kitchen. In five short years she has transformed Hot Bread Kitchen from a home-based operation to a nearly 50-person bread bakery that provides foreign-born, low-income women with training to become culinary professionals. Through her innovative work with Hot Bread Kitchen she has been recognized with awards such as the Echoing Green Fellowship, Social Venture Network's Innovation Award and Best Small Business Award.

Prior to founding Hot Bread Kitchen, Jessamyn spent a decade working for organizations and the United Nations, focusing on human rights, education, and immigration issues. Jessamyn's work has taken her to Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Bosnia and Guatemala. Jessamyn has an MPA from Columbia University, a BA from the University of British Columbia and a Master Baker certificate from New School University. She was also the first female baker in the bread baking program of Restaurant Daniel, one of the city's most highly regarded restaurants.

Molly is Hot Bread Kitchen's Communications and Development Director. As such, she is responsible for spearheading Hot Bread Kitchen's fundraising strategy to support all aspects of the organization. In addition to development, Molly also oversees all of Hot Bread Kitchen's communicated materials including managing Hot Bread Kitchen's website and social media profiles. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Bachelors degree in Political Science with a focus in International Relations. Molly began working for Hot Bread Kitchen as an intern and has also served as the organization's Program Associate and Office Manager.

Prior to working with Hot Bread Kitchen, Molly worked as Research Assistant on the book The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge University Press, 2010). She has also worked as an intern at the MacArthur Foundation and The New Yorker Magazine. Molly is fluent in Spanish and has spent time farming in Italy and studying in Argentina.