Immigrants Outpacing the Rest of Us in Small Business Ownership

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Just a couple decades ago, only 12% of small business owners were immigrants. Today, the number is 18% — a disproportion ratio given that immigrants make up just 13% of the U.S. population, according to a new study by the Fiscal Policy Institute. The portion of the U.S. labor force comprised of immigrants has been increasing for years. In 1990, immigrants made up only about 9% of the workforce.

The largest number of owners are found in the professional and business services sector (141,000), but many are found in retail, construction, educational and social services, and leisure and hospitality.

(COVER STORY: Not Legal, But Not Leaving the U.S.)

While many immigrants own restaurants (37% of owners were born outside the U.S.), grocery stores (49%) and laundry or dry cleaners (54%), a more substantial share now own technology companies. For instance, immigrants now own 20% of small computer systems design companies, according to the study.

Over the last 20 years, the number of small businesses grew 58% – from 3.1 million to 4.9 million – and immigrants started about 540,000 of those, or about one-third, over that period. And more than half don’t even have a college degree.

(MORE: Inside the World of the ‘Illegal’ Immigrant)

“I don’t think immigrants are ‘super-entrepreneurs,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, who authored the report and is a director at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “But I do see that immigrants are playing an important and growing role across the American landscape.”

The discrepancy between immigrant small business owners and the general population is even more telling at the city level. In New York City, for example, almost half of all small business owners are immigrants, but immigrants only account for 36% of the city’s population. An amazing nine out of 10 dry cleaners are owned by immigrants.

New York was third among metro areas, behind Miami and Los Angeles, in having the most immigrant entrepreneurs.

Over the last decade, the theme of American decline has proliferated. But it’s clear that the U.S. is still viewed as a place immigrants believe they can move to and succeed in. As Lowell Hawthorne, an immigrant from Jamaica who is now the CEO of a New York-based bakery and grill, told the New York Daily News: “Living in the United States, there are tremendous opportunities if one wants to work hard. … We saw there was opportunity, we ran with it and we never stopped.”

PHOTOS: Behind the Cover: America’s Undocumented Immigrants