Tough Time for Immigrants in Down Economy
Raudel Sanchez's American dream was so strong that he tied a few possessions around his waist in 1967 and swam across the Rio Grande into Texas.
"I wanted to make a better life in America," says Sanchez, 63. "My dream was bringing my family here and working together."
Sanchez, now a U.S. citizen, joined a brother in Chicago after crossing the border near Laredo, Texas. He worked as a butcher, making $1.85 an hour, and took a second job at a candy factory. He often worked 14 hours a day. He saved his earnings and eventually brought his wife, siblings and parents - who are now in their 90s - to Chicago.
Eventually, he opened several small businesses and built a comfortable life for himself and his family. But now, the recession has hit him hard. He has sold one of his three clothing stores and a restaurant, resulting in layoffs of several immigrant workers. He's considering selling a second store.
Sanchez's story reflects how immigrant-owned businesses - a key part of the U.S. economy - are being threatened by the recession. About 1.5 million immigrants own U.S. businesses, according to a study for the Small Business Administration by Rob Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He found that immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than non-immigrants. They account for 11.6 percent of all U.S. business income.
Many immigrants started with nothing and built businesses that support them and their extended families and communities.
They epitomize the American dream: Work hard and you can build a good life.
With customers spending less and banks less willing to loan money, some immigrant entrepreneurs are wondering whether that's still true.
A few years after arriving here, Sanchez bought a foreclosed house, then three more. He sold two of them in 1985 and used the money to open Sanchez Bros. Western Wear, a clothing store. He expanded to two more stores in the suburbs, bought a restaurant and started a record label for Mexican music.
He tried to run his businesses cautiously: He paid cash for merchandise and didn't use his line of credit at the bank. When people stopped buying $1,000 cowboy boots, he stocked $400 pairs.
Now they aren't selling, even on sale. "Every year we've seen a decline" in sales, he says.
Besides selling two of his businesses, Sanchez has stopped advertising. He laid off most employees, and now family members are behind the counters.
The record label is down to its last two acts. "I had a meeting with my family and told them we've got to work more and more hard," he says.
Sanchez believes his seven children and nine grandchildren will build successful lives here. He's sure the economy will rebound.
"Maybe next year," he says. Still, he's wondering about his future at a time when he should be planning retirement.
"I still believe in this dream I had many years ago," he says. "The only thing is, you have to work hard."
'We just couldn't hang on'
Niall Freyne's dream was snatched away by the recession.
Freyne, an Irish immigrant, closed Galway Tribes Irish Pub last month after lunch and weeknight business dwindled along with his customers' confidence in the economy.
"We just couldn't hang on," says Freyne, 43, who opened the restaurant in 2005 in suburban Frankfort, Ill. "We've already lost so much: all of our life savings, all of the equity in our home."
Freyne wrote a letter to President Obama asking why small businesses like his can't get a federal bailout - he says he got no reply - and he held out hope until the last minute that some generous millionaire would rescue him. That didn't happen either, and now Freyne isn't sure how he'll support his wife, Dorothy, and son James, who is 6, or what will become of his 42 employees.
"I feel like I've let everybody down," he says. "I can't control the economy, and that's what killed me."
People who leave their countries to pursue success in the USA often are risk-takers who are optimistic and willing to work especially hard to build successful futures for their children and grandchildren, says Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
In difficult economic times, "immigrants are much more likely to battle it out for longer," he says, in part because they realize that "success or failure is really on them, and this is going to have an effect for generations to come."
Because immigrant business owners - particularly those who operate stores or restaurants - often depend on their own communities, they can be "more vulnerable in these downturns," says Gregory DeFreitas, an economist at Hofstra University.
For the same reason, recovery will come more slowly to immigrant businesses, he says.
Entire family invested
Susan Patel inherited her American dream from her father, Tulsi, and uncle Mafat, immigrants from India who founded Patel Brothers, a national chain of 41 Indian grocery stores.
Last year, Susan Patel bought Patel Brothers Handicrafts & Utensils, a small Chicago shop that sells kitchen items and Hindu statues and temples, from her father. Since then, she has watched several of the Indian and Pakistani businesses that line Devon Avenue close and stopped paying herself a salary to avoid laying off her two employees.
"We've all had to adjust," says Patel, 33, but she's confident she can survive the recession. She feels obliged to keep her store open to help the neighborhood get through the recession. "If I close, customers may not come to this area at all," she says.
Patel's uncle came here from Bhandu, a rural Indian village, in the late 1960s. Her parents, Tulsi and Aruna, followed in 1971. Everyone shared a house, and Patel's parents worked in factories.
"They saved their money so they could have the American dream," she says. In 1974, they bought a small grocery. More relatives emigrated from India to join the growing throng in the Patel home, Patel says, and more stores and a line of Indian food followed. The family bought restaurants, travel agencies and real-estate companies, and the two brothers' children work in them.
Patel believes immigrant-owned businesses are more likely to make it through the recession because owners often invest their life savings - and their lives - in them. "Everyone works all the time," she says. "At the dinner table, all we talked about was business. It's all we knew."
Patel's goals are identical to those that led her parents to risk everything and come here: "just to make it, to be a success."
Confident in the economy
It will take more than a recession to threaten the dreams of many immigrant business owners who left their homelands because of political turmoil.
Christos Koskiniotis, 46, and his mother, Panayiota Koskiniotis, 67, own Four Seasons Cleaners. They came here in the 1970s from Greece after government coups forced his late father to close the cafes he owned.
The dry-cleaning business is stable for now, Christos Koskiniotis says. His mom is unfazed because she's "seen everything in her life," he says.
Their confidence in their plan for a better life in the USA is unwavering. "For the long term, this is the best place to be," he says. "You're going to hit rough spots no matter where you're at. ... I don't think the American dream is ever going to die. To think that would be like giving up on hope."
Dana Kapacinskas, 48, moved here from Kounas, Lithuania, in 1979, during the country's occupation by the Soviet Union. The dream that propelled her family was simple: "Freedom. At that time in the Soviet Union, you couldn't move, you couldn't go anywhere. They would follow you," she says.
The family started a bakery/deli here that grew over time. Racine Bakery now has more than 25 employees and distributes its baked goods to area supermarkets. Business hasn't been affected much by the recession, Kapacinskas says, "maybe because it's comfort food. ... People still have to eat."
Things are going well enough that the bakery donates food to area churches, schools and non-profit groups. Kapacinskas says she, her parents and brother were motivated to improve their lives and demonstrate to people in their new country that they were willing to work hard.
"I was very eager and I had good work ethic and I saw the opportunities," she says. "We left our friends and missed our family, but the freedom and the opportunities were unlimited."
That's what Freyne thought, too. He opened Galway Tribes after working at hotels and restaurants in Ireland and the USA. He bought the land and built the place, furnishing it with items imported from Ireland.
"We were making it. We were fine, and then about a year ago the economy started going down a bit and people stopped coming out during the week," Freyne says. Then a new assessment a few months ago pushed his property taxes beyond what he could afford. "We just couldn't survive on weekends alone," he says.
Freyne wants to believe that his American dream can somehow be revived when the economy improves.
"You can't know when that will happen," he says. "I put my blood, sweat and tears in this place. It's a sad story."