The signs of international and immigrant influence are on display on Broadway in Passaic.
“We often boast about the fact that you can travel around the world by going through a couple of blocks in Passaic,” said Mayor Hector Lora.
On the block are places like “Ay Chihuahua!” a two-year-old restaurant serving Alfonso Hernandez’s mother’s Mexican recipes. The Hernandez’s came from Mexico two decades ago, and they still work full-time jobs at ShopRite. They did what native-born Americans do to start a business.
“To open up this business we had to use the money that we saved, credit card, some of it personal credit card, money. That’s the way that we open it, but we need money to grow and to make the business the way we really want to,” said Alfonso.
April Hernandez was blunt about the process — all the paperwork and the language barriers.
“It was extremely — it was hard,” she said.
The Hernandez’s journey has become a familiar one in New Jersey. New Jersey Policy Perspective reports that authorized and unauthorized immigrants make up 22 percent of the state’s population, but start and own almost half the businesses on main street in New Jersey at 47 percent in 2016 — double what it was in 1990. Only California has a higher percentage.
The research — compiled from state, federal, university and think tank reports — found immigrant-owned businesses contribute $4.4 billion to New Jersey’s economy, $950 million from immigrant-owned main street businesses. Immigrant entrepreneurs own eight out of 10 dry cleaners and seven out of 10 grocery stores and bodegas on Main Streets in the state.
The report found while whites own 26 percent of main street businesses, Asian immigrants account for 54 percent, Hispanics 15 percent, other 3 percent and blacks 2 percent.
New Jersey Policy Perspective says many immigrants come with college degrees that aren’t accepted in the United States, and that and more drives entrepreneurship.
“Studies, particularly in academia, suggest that the main reason why immigrants look to open a business is because of racism that they experience because of their language barrier and their status as well,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective policy analyst Erika Nava.
The New Jersey State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helps immigrant entrepreneurs from 22 Spanish-speaking countries start a business in a place still known as the “land of opportunity.”
“If you go anywhere in the world and you ask people ‘why are you trying to come to the United States,’ they will answer back to you, ‘Because I want to start my own business,'” said Luis de La Hoz, chairman of the state’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
New Jersey Policy Perspective concludes New Jersey should allow unauthorized immigrants access to driver’s licenses because it would give them more flexibility, mobility, and buying power as customers and employees of immigrant-owned businesses.
“There’s a study that suggests that women would benefit more because undocumented women are more likely to be part-time workers than full-time workers,” Nava said.
But opponents of driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants in New Jersey say the reports changes nothing on the issue.
“I don’t think it’s a good policy to reward individuals who the first thing they did upon entering our country is break the law of our country and then you’re rewarding them by allowing them to obtain a driver’s license,” said Sen. Michael Doherty.
Driver’s licenses aside, the reports seems to make clear what many a main street would look like in New Jersey if it were not for immigrants starting and owning businesses.
“Municipalities are identified by their businesses. Are their businesses growing? Are the schools doing well? Are there parks? These are all combined to make a good community,” Lora said.
They also contribute to an improved economy.