Before I came to America Abroad, I worked freelance jobs doing radio production work, which meant that I usually had a part-time job going too, usually in an unrelated field, often as a barista.
Serving people coffee and pastries is an easy way to make people happy and learn a little bit about the people in your community. It’s also a good way to make sure people care about you and your business.
But here’s a not-so-big secret about my barista days: I worked for immigrant employers at independent coffeeshops.
That these business owners were immigrants isn’t unusual. As Alexandra Starr explained in her interview for our radio program, a significant percentage of businesses in cities are immigrant owned. In New York, it’s nearly half.
It’s partly for that reason that American politicians are starting to see immigration reform not just as an issue that inflames passions in the Southwest, but as a key to creating jobs for people who live here already. I don’t think anybody would question the value of a person who can gather enough money to create and sustain a business and give jobs to people. But there’s no visa category for people who want to move to the U.S. and start their own business instead of working for someone else.
But there’s legislation designed to fix that (mentioned by Professor Jeffery Robinson of Rutgers University Business School in our roundtable). It’s the Startup Act 2.0. I’ve yet to find a single column written in opposition to it. Members of Congress from both parties are backing it. And even though the U.S. has fallen in international ranking as a place to open a business, we still have the largest consumer market of any country in the world, so making this fix, and fast, is probably a smart move.
Immigrant business owners don’t just provide goods and services, either. They pay taxes, they become part of local business communities, they give to charities and become familiar faces to the people around them. The croissants and cakes of Joseph Poupon, a Frenchman, who with his wife Ruth runs Patisserie Poupon in Baltimore and Washington, have become a staple to people who live in Georgetown. Because of their business, I made a number of important connections with writers, diplomats, and TV producers while I made lattes.
Alexandra Starr made another valuable point in her report for the Council on Foreign Relations. “Immigrants have a history of leading initial waves of inner-city gentrification, drawn by inexpensive rent and armed with a willingness to take on risk. The first businesses to open shop are usually service oriented—cafes or grocery stores—that cater to the immigrants who are moving in.”
There’s a need to temper urban development and gentrification to preserve an inner-city neighborhood’s character and protect long term residents from being pushed out by rising rents and property taxes, of course. But provided city planning is done well, immigrant entrepreneurs can be a major force in revitalizing troubled neighborhoods.
As a barista (and then a frequent patron) of Azeb Desta’s cafe in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, I saw the neighborhood spring to life over the course of a few years. Azi, as she liked to be called, was from Ethiopia, and regularly engaged with local beat cops, other local business owners, and regular customers to figure out what was going on in the community. The coffeeshop was as much a hub for local meetings as a place to go for a good sandwich, and was one of the first businesses to fill that capacity for a part of town that had long been run down. She’s since sold the business to new management and moved on, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the neighborhood’s better off for having had her and her coffeeshop.