It was mid-May 2014 when the Texans came calling. Being the good host, David Tran, founder of Huy Fong Foods, the maker of the famous red hot sauce Sriracha, had the Lone Star State flag flying outside his plant in Irwindale, Calif.
The Texas state officials were upbeat. Only two weeks earlier, Toyota had announced that it was moving its North American headquarters from Torrance, Calif., to the Dallas suburb of Plano.
But a deal with Tran to move operations to Texas never happened, chiefly because Texas is not so good for growing the chili peppers needed for making Sriracha.
But what I found most interesting about this story was David Tran.
A former major in the army of South Vietnam, Tran fled Vietnam with the communist takeover. He was one of the “boat people,” arriving in the United States in 1980 following the Vietnam War. The same year, he began his hot sauce business on Spring Street in Los Angeles.
Tran named his company after the Taiwanese freighter, the “Huey Fong”, that carried him and and 3,317 other refugees out of Vietnam. “Huey Fong” literally means “gathering prosperity.”
That is so right. When I think of immigrants coming to America, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and later the 12 million souls who came through Ellis Island, I think of this gathering prosperity. It is foundational to why we exist as a country and who we are as a people. It’s what makes America exceptional.
It’s hard to overstate the contribution immigrants like Tran have made to the U.S. The Kauffman Foundation’s 2016 Index of Startup Activity finds that immigrant entrepreneurs account for 27.5 percent of all new entrepreneurs in America, and that is despite the fact that immigrants account for less than 15 percent of the U.S. population.
If you think about it, the act of migration, leaving your home country for another, is fraught with all sorts of risk, as is the act of starting a business. To do both, well, that takes real courage.
Iconic American Companies
And yet many studies show that immigrants are nearly twice as likely as native-born Americans to launch new businesses. Some of those businesses have become very, very big. Google, Intel, Yahoo, AT&T, and Goldman Sachs, iconic American companies that employ millions, were all founded by foreign entrepreneurs.
Indeed, immigrants have started more than half of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion dollars or more and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70 percent of these companies, according to National Foundation for American Policy. The NFAP research finds that among the billion dollar startup companies, immigrant founders have created an average of 760 jobs per company in the U.S.
With that in mind, it is not surprising that the U.S. has awarded more patents to immigrants in the last decade than any other country.
A 2016 report from the Partnership for a New American Economy found more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. (Apple Founder Steve Job’s father came to this country from Syria.) Those firms generated more than $4.8 trillion in revenue in 2014 and employed 18.9 million people globally. Other Partnership findings:
- The U.S. is currently home to more than 2.9 million foreign-born entrepreneurs, a group whose companies generated $65.5 billion in business income in 2014 alone.
- Businesses owned by immigrants employed more than 5.9 million workers in 2007.
- In 2014, 19.1 percent of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa were entrepreneurs. Similarly, 11.1 percent of foreign-born Hispanics were self-employed, as were 10.6 percent of Asian immigrants. The rate of entrepreneurship among working Americans was 9.5 percent that year.
Not Just in Big Cities
If you think immigrants are making their mark only in the big cities of America, you would be wrong.
New American Economy, EngageNWA, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation released a study in November 2016 showing that the foreign-born population has been a huge economic boon for Northwest Arkansas.
Among the findings, immigrants contributed $3.1 billion to the region’s GDP in 2014, and held $1 billion in spending power. They also accounted for 42 percent of the region’s population growth between 2009 and 2014.
I first learned of the contributions of immigrants in Northwest Arkansas during a visit to the region last year. My friend Mike Harvey, Chief Operating Officer/Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Council, told me as much. Being that I consider Mike one of the best economic developers in the country, I believe what he tells me, more so than any study.
But I’ve also seen it firsthand. I have met immigrants in small towns and in rural places throughout America. Some are store merchants, while others are doing low-skilled, often strenuous “dirty” jobs that many Americans don’t want, such as working on farms and in meatpacking plants.
In Them, I Trust
Whether they are motivated entrepreneurs, high-skilled technicians or low-skilled field workers, I have found most immigrants to be good, hardworking folks seeking the American Dream. Generally speaking, they try harder.
To some degree, I trust my well being to them. My family doctor is of Chinese extraction, my dentist is from South Korea, and my optometrist is from Iran. (He says “Persia,” which is fine by me.) The woman who cuts my hair is from Mexico, demonstrating great patience as I practice (inflict) my poor Spanish upon her.
Overall, immigrants have a higher employment rate than people born in America. Those who have been in the U.S. for 20 or more years also have higher median household incomes than people born in America.
As you can probably tell, I am quite bullish on immigrants. I believe the benefits they offer to our country far outweigh the costs. Indeed, a study of greater Cleveland would affirm this. It found that while $4.8 million was spent on refugee services in 2012, spending by refugees, refugee-owned businesses, and refugee service organizations boosted the local economy by $48 million, creating 650 jobs and providing $2.7 million in tax revenues to local and state governments.
Let’s Not Overreact
Having said all that, I absolutely recognize the need for enforced borders and screening. But we don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face. We don’t need to overreact and send a message to world that immigrants are not welcomed here. That’s the last thing we need to do.
I believe we must preserve our historical immigration policy to invite the world’s smartest and most innovative minds to come, learn, and do business in the country. My fear is that we are revoking that invitation.
It would appear that the Trump administration not only seeks a travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries, but also to suspend our country’s entire refugee program. Whatever form a rewritten executive order takes to pass judicial muster, the intent and result will be to tighten quotas, impose heavy limitations on foreign students, and enact measures that will certainly impact our tech industry’s ability to attract and keep talent.
Tech Companies Considering Options
Already, some tech companies are now considering whether to move jobs out of the U.S. to places with more relaxed immigration policies, such as Canada, which have made clear they would welcome an influx of U.S.-based immigrant technology workers.
“One of the sad ironies of this is that an administration that purports to understand business is threatening one of the core pillars of what has made Silicon Valley so successful and an engine of economic growth,” Matt Mahan, chief executive of the social networking start-up Brigade, told The Washington Post.
There are some policy areas where I think the Trump administration is on the right track in improving the business climate of this country. Reducing burdensome regulations is one (See my earlier blog Business Regulation and the Cost of Regulation) and reducing corporate taxes is another. (See my blog The Big Business Story to Come.)
These are policy changes that would have huge ramifications for the private sector, spurring growth and the creation of jobs.
But I cannot support measures that would have a chilling effect on legal immigration. It not only reinforces wrongheaded nativist ideas and bigotry, but it would cost our country economically.
A Promise Worth Keeping
We have studied the immigration question for decades and have rightly concluded that immigrants are a net win for the U.S. economy, jobs, and wages. They have proven themselves as workers, entrepreneurs, innovators, taxpayers, consumers, and investors.
Back in 2005, 500 economists (including five Nobel laureates) wrote a letter to President George W. Bush and Congress, stating this to be true.
The letter begins with these words: “People from around the world have been drawn to America for its promise of freedom and opportunity.”
Let us keep our promise. It makes all Americans better off.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 972-890-3733.