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Citizenship: A Pathway to Economic Recovery

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Too often, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform fail to make the strongest argument for bipartisan legislative action -- an economic argument. Too much emphasis has been put on immigration reform as a social policy that will benefit immigrants, and not enough has been done to highlight the positive economic impact that immigration reform will have on entire cities and regions. Immigrant workers and entrepreneurs are engines of economic growth and the time to pass comprehensive immigration reform is now.

Consider a 2012 U.S. SBA report on immigrant entrepreneurship and small business ownership which determined that, during the Great Recession, immigrant entrepreneurship rates more than doubled those of non-immigrants. This provides strong evidence that today's immigrants responded to the worst economic period in the last 70 years with a "by the bootstraps" mentality that embodies the very notion of the American Spirit and U.S. ingenuity. Even within the limitations of current federal and state immigration laws, the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute finds that immigrants own 18 percent of all U.S. businesses; annually adding $776 billion to the U.S. economy while employing 4.7 million American workers. Currently, 30 percent of all small business growth is due to immigrant-owned businesses.

To be an effective economic policy, however, comprehensive immigration reform must not only create a pathway to citizenship, but also integrate economic opportunity. It must intentionally support the economic dreams and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrant workers and aspiring business owners through programs that support small business development, credit counseling, homeownership counseling, and access to mainstream banking.

Traditionally, immigrant integration has been understood to mean teaching English and processing legal paperwork. These are necessary and important services to ensure a smooth operation of the immigration process, however, lawmakers should consider the goal of immigrant integration not simply as passing a language test or finalizing paperwork, but rather giving immigrants the tools to become more robust economic contributors and taxpayers to the U.S economy. This is not only a winning argument for convincing skeptical constituents, but is a fact that will pay dividends for the U.S. well into the future.

Achieving legal immigration status is a tremendous asset that opens up the economic potential of immigrants to increase their personal income and build wealth in American communities. However, immigrants who do not have a strong understanding of the financial and real estate marketplace in the U.S. are targets for unscrupulous and predatory actors who seek to strip immigrants of their financial assets. The Center for Financial Services Innovation reports that these fringe financial services annually cost U.S. consumers $13 billion in fees and interest -- a figure which could substantially increase if steps are not taken to ensure that immigrants are better advised of the benefits of accessing mainstream financial institutions. Indeed, making financial education and other asset building services available to individuals that achieve legal status, in conjunction with legal services and ESL, can be the critical difference between a new immigrant-owned small business driving its local economy and a newly legalized family in poverty, struggling to make an economic contribution.

Comprehensive immigration reform doesn't have to be a costly initiative nor a burden on the taxpayers. Immigrants complement native-born workers' skills by filling critical niches in the American labor force and, despite anti-immigrant rhetoric to the contrary, independent studies from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), National Bureau of Economic Research, the University of Chicago, the Center for American Progress, and the Economic Policy Institute all conclude that immigrants in the United States actually increase the overall average wage for U.S. born workers. Furthermore, a recent CBO report conservatively estimates that implementing immigration reform would inject $66 billion in new revenue and tax collections into the U.S. economy over a ten year period. This infusion of capital will offset and surpass any expenditure associated with additional entitlement costs and result in a net gain of $12 billion. While the effect on the national economy is a positive one, the impact on a local level can be transformative.

Consider the Lake Street in Minneapolis. Twenty years ago, immigrant small business owners began to organize and invest in what was then a dilapidated commercial corridor. A NALCAB member; the nonprofit Latino Economic Development Center formed and provided technical support to small business owners, culminating in the development of a cooperatively owned market place. The vitality that immigrant entrepreneurs brought to Lake Street attracted other private market investment and today this is one of the premier shopping districts of Minneapolis. Immigrant business transformed the neighborhood as well as the tax base. See this video.

In neighborhoods across the country, immigrants are meeting community needs through in-demand skills, hard work and tenacity. However, the economic potential of these workers is limited by their immigration status. If these individuals were able to obtain legal status and were counseled to harness their powerful entrepreneurial spirit, it could provide a genuine opportunity for this country to holistically revitalize suffering communities from within.

The recent national elections were a clear repudiation of the prejudicial rhetoric from a loud minority that distracted the public discussion of immigration and immigration reform. In a painfully slow post recessionary economic recovery, we cannot afford to ignore the positive financial force that immigrants represent. We call on lawmakers from both parties to expedite passage of comprehensive immigration reform within a financial education and asset-building framework and to ensure that the promise of a path towards national economic recovery through the will of our nation's immigrants is not lost.

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About NALCAB: NALCAB -- The National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders is a membership -- based national nonprofit in Stan Antonio that represents and serves over 90 members that are a geographically and ethnically diverse group of nonprofit community and economic development organizations that are anchor institutions in our nation's Latino communities. NALCAB's mission is to build financial and human assets as well as real estate and technology resources for Latino families, communities, and organizations. For additional information, visit NALCAB's press room or go to www.nalcab.org.