09/20/2013 09:18 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Immigrants: Assets, Not Liabilities

I hated being an auditor. But I loved working with Ashraf.

More than twenty years ago I was a senior accountant working for an international accounting firm. My biggest audit client was a pharmaceutical company. It was a giant job. And although I was only in my mid-20's I was running it. Well not exactly- there was a manager and a partner looking over my shoulder but please...I had some responsibility, OK? I ran that accounting project for three straight years. And in my third year a new staff member joined my team of ten. His name was Ashraf and he was from Egypt. And he rocked.

Ashraf was polite, smart and worked his pants off. He was in early, stayed late and never complained. His language skills were OK, his dress was sometimes un-American (or just un-accounting...our firm does not like bright colors!) but his mind was like a computer and his body like a machine. I could count on him to get every task I gave him done and done right.

Ashraf was almost as old as I was. He had graduated college back in Egypt and now in America he was taking his MBA at a local university and also sitting for the Certified Public Accountant examination. His specialty was statistics and he was really good at it. An effective audit is all about good sampling. Sampling accounts receivable invoices to confirm. Selecting transactions to investigate. Picking out certain contracts to examine. Auditors never look at all the data. We took samples. And that was Ashraf's forte. Of course our firm had certain procedures for selecting samples to audit. But Ashraf improved on those methods - he was able to pick a better, more representative sample. He had his own innovative approach. He brought a whole new level of skill to the job.

That's because he loved his job. And he loved being in the U.S. While the rest of us were complaining about work during the day and going out and getting hammered at happy hour that night, Ashraf stuck to it. His missed his family in Egypt but he knew he was working towards a better life. He said that he'd like to get his family members over here too, because this was a better life for them. He appreciated the freedoms, the opportunities...all those corny things we talk about or roll our eyes at when we listen to speeches on the Fourth of July or wait impatiently for the ballgame to begin.

Ashraf told me he planned to start his own business too. He wanted to take what he learned about statistical sampling and create a software application that companies could use to do it better. Remember...this was in the early 1980's! He had friends, other Egyptian students, who wanted to join up with him. He told me he would work on the application at nights and on weekends. He would save up money from his job at the accounting firm so he would one day be able to quit the job and be able to afford to work full time on his new business. The kid was super smart. There was no question that his application would be terrific. There was no doubt that he would succeed.

The accounting firm I worked for really had a great deal going for them with Ashraf. They employed an MBA student with the brains of a genius for a lower salary then they would probably pay someone from this country. They could get away with it then (like many do now) because they took advantage of his foreign background (i.e. ignorance in the ways of the business world here), his willingness to work, his gratitude at earning even what he was earning when compared to what his lifestyle would've been like back at home. They got a young man who would put in 80 hour weeks and never complain. He would keep his mouth shut and his eyes down. They could keep him holed up in the audit room, away from any client interaction (did I mention his loud suits?) while he ran numbers and did all the math. The job paid for his education and would hopefully pay one day for his business too. It was mutual exploitation. And neither party was disappointed in the other.

And what was the effect on the rest of the audit team? It raised our own level of output. We liked Ashraf. We respected his worth ethic. And we admired his abilities. It also got us all thinking, even me, the senior on the job. Ashraf was smarter than me. He worked harder than me. He had a better attitude than me. How many Ashrafs are there? Why wouldn't firms, big or small, benefit from hiring more of him? He has qualities that he has would be extremely attractive to any business. Sure, I could complain. But I could also see the writing on the wall.

Ashraf was the future. And I better get used to it. It is Ashraf, and every immigrant like him, that brings harder work and more innovation to the job. I could either fight that, or join him. I could complain about him, or I could be better than him. I could sit on my butt or I could step up to the plate. I could push myself to innovate, to work harder, to learn more and to do a better job. Just so I could keep up with him. And I did. I matched his hours. I set the example as the senior. I used his strengths to offset my weaknesses. Ashraf was better at statistical sampling and crunching numbers than me. But I was better at analyzing higher level financial data and then communicating issues and suggestions to our clients than he was. I was able to translate his work into a better job. He was able to provide me with better data to do my job. Instead of fighting him I did well because of him. Ashraf elevated my game.

Unfortunately that was the one and only year I had the privilege of working with Ashraf. The next year his visa ran out and he reluctantly went back to Egypt. I wonder where he is now. And I regret that we lost this asset.

I think about Ashraf now that the Immigration Bill is stalled in the Senate. The bill is not perfect. There are unknowns. And legitimate concerns. But it's a good bill. Because the bill will let hundreds of thousands of Ashrafs take their university degrees and work for businesses like mine, big and small, without fear of being deported. It will allow them to start up their own businesses in this country and stay in this country. And some of these businesses will grow, and succeed and employ people and provide potential products and services that my small business could use.

And will all these immigrants compete for jobs and my customers? Yeah, they will. But it's a big country. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And I have no doubt that the smart business people I know will utilize the strengths of those skilled (and unskilled) immigrants who will have the opportunity to prove themselves. They are our assets, not our liabilities. There are other countries vying for these assets, these talented people. Those are our competitors. Not Ashraf. Not the 11 million undocumented immigrants here. They are our assets. And they will help us all, personally and professionally, step up our game.

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