When I first visited Nashville in 1992, things looked very different. It wasn’t so easy to meet someone from Mexico living here in Nashville 20 years ago. At least, not like it is today.
Tennesseans did not necessarily know much about immigrant populations, and that lack of knowledge created barriers for new Americans. This is why I work to foster entrepreneurship and to tell stories and educate people on the contributions of immigrants. As the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I work with large corporations but also with the small, family-owned business that invests all it has in hopes of achieving the American dream. Today, our local Hispanic community is diverse, vibrant and successful, surpassing 10 percent of Nashville’s population.
Our success here in Tennessee is reflected in the rest of the country. The research unequivocally shows that immigrants have contributed in significant, sometimes vital, ways to key sectors of our economy. Research by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows that immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as the native-born. In the manufacturing sector, immigrants have created or preserved over 1.8 million jobs nationally, not only creating jobs, but wealth as well, with Latina entrepreneurs leading the charge, opening businesses six times faster than the national average, adding to the 44 percent growth of all Hispanic-owned businesses and providing a collective economic boost of an estimated $465 billion annually. In fact, there has been a 200 percent increase in Latina-owned business over the past decade, according to the U.S Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Like me, Hispanic entrepreneurs aren’t expecting trophies for working hard, but simply to have the opportunity to live in dignity within their community. They’re just grateful to be in a place where free enterprise flourishes and people of all backgrounds can work hard to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Economic arguments aside, there are larger societal implications at stake here. The numbers are certainly convincing, especially given our economy is still in recovery mode. Border security is another important issue in this debate — we must secure our borders just as we must welcome those who legally seek to create a life here. Eleven million people living as second-class citizens, ironically decades after their home countries gained independence, presents an unacceptable situation. It is truly irresponsible to continue moving forward as a country without addressing a group that is about the same size as the population of Ohio. To me, the government should spend its resources protecting the border from criminal and terrorist organizations rather than looking for individuals brought over here by the economic labor demands of our American economy. Let’s then begin by supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
Naturalizing new Americans is a rigorous process, and it should continue to be that way. But naturalization does make a difference. Naturalized immigrants make a long-term commitment to the U.S., a decision that often leads to more significant contributions to their communities.
So while a process is necessary, it must not hurt us by turning away the world’s talent, stifling entrepreneurship here and forcing a huge group of people to live in hiding.
Last Wednesday, October 15, as we closed Hispanic Heritage Month with our 10th annual Business & Community Awards at Waller, city leaders and entrepreneurs, too, joined the nation in recognizing the cultural, economic, professional and civic contributions of more than 54 million Hispanics in our country, and in our Nashville community, honoring those who stand daily behind the scenes and on the front lines of our economic prosperity.
Yuri Cunza is president and CEO of the Nashville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce" (First published in The Tennessean newspaper 10/14/2014)