Hispanic immigrants becoming Americans

Linda Chavez

3/22/2006 1:05:00 PM - Linda Chavez
Though most opponents of immigration are loath to admit it, at least publicly, they're worried that the huge influx of Hispanics will somehow change America for the worse. And who can blame them for wondering whether the tremendous demographic shift that has taken place over the last few years won't have unintended consequences? In 1970, there were fewer than 10 million Hispanics in the United States; today, there are more than 40 million, thanks largely to the ever-increasing influx of Latin American immigrants. And some estimates predict that by mid-century one out of every three Americans will be of Hispanic heritage.

Call it the browning of America, but what does it really mean? Will the United States become an extension of Latin America, or will the Melting Pot transform Hispanic immigrants into just another American ethnic group similar to the Irish, German, and Italian Americans who are descendants of previous immigrant flows? A study released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau gives reason for optimism that the latter path is more likely.

Although a majority of Hispanic immigrants are low-skilled workers who lack even a high school education, that doesn't necessarily mean they will be consigned to low-wage jobs indefinitely, creating a huge new underclass. Immigrants often make up in their willingness to work hard and sacrifice what they lack in formal skills. The Census Bureau confirms that a great many immigrants are imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit that puts to shame those of us who were born here. In its study of Hispanic Entrepreneurship, the Census Bureau reports that Hispanics are opening businesses at a rate three times faster than the national average. There were almost 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses generating $222 billion in revenue in 2002, the year for which the Census Bureau collected data. And nearly one-quarter of these opened between 1997 and 2002.

Although the study did not differentiate between those businesses started or owned by U.S.-born Hispanics from those run by immigrants, the data suggest this huge increase in Hispanic entrepreneurship is largely the result of increased immigration. The metropolitan Baltimore-Washington area, for example, ranks seventh among areas in the nation with the largest number of Hispanic-owned firms, yet there are few U.S.-born Hispanics among this group. Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C., is home to almost 7,500 such businesses, up 30 percent in a five-year period, while Fairfax County in Northern Virginia boasts almost as many.

Most of these businesses are family affairs, with few employees. But more than 1,500 of the businesses nationwide employed 100 or more people, generating $42 billion in gross receipts. Nearly 30 percent of Hispanic-owned businesses were in construction, repair, maintenance or other personal services, while 36 percent were in retail or wholesale trade. The largest numbers of such businesses were concentrated in California and Texas, home to the biggest Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant populations. Not surprisingly, 44 percent of all Hispanic-owned businesses were run by those of Mexican origin. But New York experienced the fastest rate of growth, 57 percent, followed by Rhode Island and Georgia with 56 percent, and Nevada and South Carolina with 48 percent.

What could be more American than the dream of running your own business? Immigrants come here with the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, but many aren't content simply to take home a paycheck. They want to build something for the future, something they can pass on to their children. Whether it's a Guatemalan starting a landscaping business, a Mexican setting up a home repair firm, or a Cuban opening an insurance company, the United States offers them opportunities they would never have enjoyed in their native countries.

Hispanic entrepreneurs are becoming an increasingly vital part of the economic engine that drives this nation. Hispanics aren't turning the U.S. into a Latin American outpost; they are being transformed into the quintessential American: the small and not-so-small businessman and woman.