Entrepreneurial Immigrants: America’s Lifeblood

It’s a story as American as apple pie: An immigrant comes to the United States, starts a business and becomes the proud owner of a successful enterprise that employs hundreds and makes millions.

But it’s more than a parable of individual success. By attracting ambitious families from all over the world, America continually reinvents itself as a home base for successive global revolutions in engineering, marketing, entertainment and more.

From the four “Warner” brothers—born Wonsklolaser in Poland—who opened their first movie theater in 1903 to French-born Pierre Omidyar, who in 1995 launched the “AuctionWeb” website that became eBay, immigrant entrepreneurs have opened doors to new markets, new jobs and new opportunities for other Americans. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, more than 40 percent of the 2012 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

This diverse participation in production and innovation defines America at its best. Libertarians get a bad rap as apathetic apostles of self-reliance. In reality, we’re big believers in the value of voluntary dynamic interactions between and among people. We know the everyday exchanges of goods, services, and ideas are the lifeblood of progress.

This has been on my mind this week – this fundamental concept of progress through free cooperation. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address. For the majority of its history, this country denied black Americans not only political participation and other basic rights, but access to capital and markets as well.

Thus, Jim Crow begat an additional tragedy – the squandering of business and wealth-creating energies that would have benefited so many had African Americans been free to participate in America’s vibrant economy.

In a similar vein, consider the consequences of our immigration policies. Despite America’s rich history of immigrant entrepreneurship, the government does not offer “entrepreneur” visas to aspiring business owners. Some legislative remedies are now being debated. But as a new study just released by my organization shows, the current proposals are so burdened by bureaucratic restrictions that they make most immigrant entrepreneurs ineligible.

We must do better. The rest of the world won’t wait for America to reclaim its title as the land of opportunity. In June, the Canadian government bought a billboard near Silicon Valley inviting anyone with visa problems to “pivot to Canada.”  If we want tomorrow’s Warner Bros. and eBay to be born here, we need a better welcome mat now.

What will we lose if we fail to attract future waves of entrepreneurs to our shores? Jobs definitely, and wealth certainly.  But we’ll lose more than that. Our entrepreneurs are risk-takers on the frontlines of change, adapting to new conditions and new demands. Our communities and our future prosperity depend on them.

If you don’t believe that, visit New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, new Latino, Vietnamese and Korean immigrants opened businesses and churches and joined risk-taking African-American community leaders and social entrepreneurs in rebuilding. We can debate government’s role in disasters, but the story of New Orleans’ revival is one of people succeeding despite government’s best “regulatory efforts” to repair and restore.

Through spontaneous cooperation among ambitious individuals, many of whom crossed oceans or state lines to be there, a new city rises on the banks of the Mississippi.

Some did so for humanitarian reasons, others did so purely for profit, yes. And why shouldn’t they?

Material success is only a means to an end. The big question is: To what end?  Some pursue wealth to buy villas and private planes, others to fight human trafficking, cure AIDS and provide lumber to rebuild homes.

Different though they appear, these pursuits are all opportunities to realize dreams – to create jobs for thousands, soothe shattered souls and bring ever more people into a virtuous cycle of prosperity and liberty.

As a libertarian, I believe strongly in this freedom to prosper, explore and participate. It’s this freedom that immigrants seek – the freedom to try without racial barriers. And their freedom is our freedom, because it increases our possibilities and our chance at a better future.

Tanisha Robinson, cofounder of TicketFire, Print Syndicate, and the daily deal site Fudha, might not have been able to take such risks just a few generations ago, because of the color of her skin. She said it best:

“My goal — and I’m totally unashamed of this — is to be immensely wealthy. When I think about the people I want to be like, and have the kind of impact they have specifically, it’s great philanthropists who have s— piles of money. I want to build companies, empires so that I can spend the rest of my life figuring out how to give it away for a real impact…”

In 1973, 10 years after MLK’s address, a boy named Sergey was born in the Soviet Union. He would later emigrate to the United States with his family and, while pursuing a PhD at Stanford University, befriend a classmate from Michigan named Larry. Together, Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google and changed the world’s economic and cultural landscape. Had they lived out their lives apart on separate continents, would they have been capable of so much?

I doubt it.