It is a time usually marked by hope and optimism. But for too many immigrant families, this time of year also brings great uncertainty. My hope is that this summer will bring an end to this uncertainty with the embrace of comprehensive and economy-boosting immigration reform.
As one of ten children of hardworking immigrant parents, I worked every summer on farms in Idaho – places like Nampa, Caldwell, Marsing, and Homedale. Every morning, we’d leave our home in Emmett at four in the morning and work until sundown.
Despite the grueling work, I always thought about how lucky we were to have escaped bitter poverty in Mexico, building a better future for our family and contributing to our community in our new home in Idaho.
Today, immigrant workers are integral to Idaho’s workforce, but we also contribute billions of dollars in tax revenue and consumer purchasing power. Latino and Asian immigrants wield $4.1 billion in consumer purchasing power. Our businesses generated sales and receipts of $939.5 million and employed more than 7,300 people at last count.
But, our country’s out-dated immigration laws limit the full potential of immigrant contributions, and fail to live up to our country’s ideals of hard work, family values, and shared prosperity.
Eight years ago, I took the biggest risk of my life. Like so many entrepreneurial immigrants, I started a small business – Jalapeños Mexican Restaurant. Following the success of our first location in Nampa, we opened a second location in Boise. We employ 50 people and are proud to be rated one of the top restaurants in Idaho.
In fact, immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as U.S.-born citizens. Like so many immigrant entrepreneurs, I am a job maker, not a job taker.
Summer is one of the hardest times of the year for me as a business owner – not because business isn’t booming – but because every day I have to turn away countless young people applying for jobs because they don’t have proper immigration documents.
We want these young people – many of whom have just graduated high-school – to believe that the world is in their hands.
They say, “Jalapeños is my favorite restaurant. I’d really like to work here.” Telling them “No, I can’t hire you” is probably the hardest thing I have to do. It breaks my heart every time – the accumulation of so many individual stories of lost hope and stifled dreams.
Stories like this: a young high-school student who, until recently, had no idea she did not have papers. She immigrated when she was 2 months old, brought by her parents who were recruited to work in the fields. Having lived her whole life in Idaho, she only found about her immigration status when all her friends were signing up for drivers ed.
Because of her immigration status, she can’t get a driver’s license. Despite her hard work, good grades and positive attitude, she can’t get hired at my business, or any other that follows the law. With her future uncertain, it’s hard for her to see why she has been working so hard.
Passing immigration reform wouldn’t just brighten her future or those of millions of other undocumented immigrants, it would grow all of our futures together. Economists have found that immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
Last summer, the U.S. Senate passed bipartisan immigration reform legislation. This summer, it’s time for the House to answer the call.
Irma Valdivia is the owner of Jalapeños Mexican Restaurant and a leader with Idaho Community Action Network and the Main Street Alliance of Idaho, a coalition of small business owners.