In an Indiana Avenue strip mall just off Highway 91 in Riverside, there’s an Egyptian-run dry cleaner, a Thai-owned postal-services shop, a Mexican-operated Christian bookstore, a Chinese foot-massage business, a Cambodian-owned deli and an Egyptian-run pizza cafe. Only one business in the center has a U.S.-born owner.
Such concentrations of immigrant-owned businesses are increasingly common in the Inland area.
Nearly a third of small-business owners in the region are immigrants, more than double the percentage of two decades ago, a new study finds.
The study by the Latham, N.Y.-based Fiscal Policy Institute is based upon an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau surveys. The institute is a research and education organization that focuses on economic and social issues.
David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the institute’s Immigration Research Initiative and principal author of the report, said the statistics show that, even though immigrants often are blamed for taking jobs from U.S.-born workers, they in reality create millions of jobs.
“That’s part of the story people often miss out on,” he said.
Immigrant business owners with paid workers other than themselves employ on average 11 people, the study shows.
The report also found that immigrants of working age are 10 percent more likely to own an incorporated business than U.S.-born residents.
“These are people who left their homes to try to make a new start,” Dyssegaard Kallick said.
Nationwide, 18 percent of small-business owners are immigrants. The Inland region has the eighth highest percentage of small-business owners – 31 percent – of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas.
The area lures immigrant entrepreneurs for the same reason it attracts new residents: cheaper land and rents and a lower cost of living than in coastal counties, said David Stewart, a professor of marketing at UC Riverside.
Cities and counties in the region also tend to have fewer regulations and paperwork than places to the west, Stewart said.
BUSINESS MELTING POT
Indiana Avenue, which parallels Highway 91 south of downtown, is typical of many parts of the Inland Empire.
In a section of the street that runs through the Victoria and Casa Blanca neighborhoods, strip malls with fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, dry cleaners and other retail outlets alternate with dental offices and gas stations.
Wadie Andrawis has been in a shopping center there since 1984, sharing it with the Chinese foot-massage shop and the other immigrant-run businesses. Using savings he brought with him from Egypt, he first opened a doughnut shop, later adding pizza to the menu because the doughnuts weren’t selling well. He eventually dropped the doughnuts.
Now Andrawis and his wife, Teresa – the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants – have two locations of N & W Antonious Pizza & Cafe, the other in downtown Riverside. They have 15 employees, most of them U.S.-born.
When Wadie Andrawis, 57, arrived in the United States in 1980, he settled in San Bernardino because an Egyptian friend was a manager of a doughnut shop there and offered him a job as a cashier.
He is an accomplished writer and playwright who has written 36 books. He said he fled Egypt after Muslim extremists threatened him for writing a play that they believed contained blasphemous passages.
But Andrawis’ writing skills didn’t help him get a U.S. job. There’s not much demand in the U.S. for people who write in Arabic, he said.
ANOTHER AMERICAN DREAM
It’s common for immigrants with professional jobs in their homelands to not find similar work in the United States, said Todd Sorensen, an assistant professor of economics at UC Riverside.
“The skills people bring from their home countries might not transfer to U.S. firms, but they might transfer to running a business,” Sorensen said.
The study found that immigrants from Middle Eastern and European countries were most likely to own businesses. Mexicans, who make up most of the Inland area’s immigrants, were least likely of all nationalities.
Sorensen said immigrants from faraway countries tend to arrive with more money to open a business, because it costs more to emigrate. Mexicans typically cross the land border. In addition, Mexican immigrants are more likely to be undocumented than migrants from other countries, and that adds barriers to opening a formal business, he said.
Down Indiana Avenue from Andrawis’ restaurant, Pakistani-born Tariq Rao runs Adam’s Smoke Shop and Market. Rao, 30, worked for his father’s car dealership in Pakistan, but his father – who provided the financing for the store – didn’t have the million dollars that is typically necessary to open a U.S. car dealership, so the two opened a smoke shop instead, Rao said.
Like many immigrants, Rao settled in the Inland region because he had family – his sister – already in the area.
Van and Miriam Ngo co-own businesses in the same shopping center as Rao. Miriam Ngo, a Mexican immigrant, runs Nails Plus salon. Van Ngo, 42, a native of Vietnam, operates Teriyaki Plus.
The two met when they were employees at a previous location of Teriyaki Plus. They saved up money and took out loans to buy the restaurant and nail salon.
“I started out as a cook, but I always had an interest in owning a business,” Van Ngo said. “It’s the American dream to own a business.”