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Immigrant Entrepreneurship in the Southern Border Region

San Diego, CA and El Paso, TX are intricately connected to their sister cities across the border in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, respectively—creating megaregions tied together by shared culture, language, and economy. The conventional narrative about border cities tends to focus exclusively on border enforcement, but the southern border region—spanning from California to Texas— is a key economic engine for the United States, with immigrant entrepreneurs at the center. In the absence of any significant legislation from Congress supporting immigrant entrepreneurs, municipalities along the border, like others in the country, have stepped in to fill the gap, recognizing the valuable contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs to their economies and their city’s success.

Border regions are unique in part because they are connected across borders by cultures, history, families, schoolchildren, tourists, and businesses. Compared to other regions in the United States, border residents are twice as likely to be immigrants; in California, 26% of border residents are immigrants, followed closely by Texas with 21%. In both San Diego and El Paso, the national trend in which immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than their American-born counterparts holds true. In these cities, immigrant entrepreneurs work in main street businesses as well as high tech firms, bolstering local immigrant communities and participating in the broader economies of the regions. World-wide, immigrant entrepreneurs help create jobs, meet regional needs, and foster innovation, serving as a crucial cultural and economic link between cities across borders.

San Diego, CA

The San Diego-Tijuana megaregion has a population of over 5 million and a GDP of $230 billion. The economies of the two cities are connected through trade, industry, and labor creating a significant economic cluster. In San Diego, 25% of the population identifies as immigrants or refugees, who contribute $22 billion in spending power and $9 billion in tax revenue per year to the local economy. Of this population, 64,181, or 9% of the immigrant population, are entrepreneurs.

In 2019, the city government began working with stakeholders across sectors to develop the Welcoming San Diego Strategic Plan, an initiative to further immigrant integration. Welcoming San Diego aims to invest in the immigrant communities by increasing economic opportunity, enhancing civic participation, and expanding data collection and impact evaluation. The overarching goal is to provide resources, help entrepreneurs overcome barriers, and create a system that allows immigrants to thrive. In July 2022, Mayor Todd Gloria of San Diego announced the creation of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, which will work to implement the Welcoming San Diego Strategic Plan, focus on workforce development for immigrant communities, and develop resources for newly arrived immigrants.

Nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations play a significant role in furthering the Welcoming San Diego initiative through advocacy efforts and by providing funding and training opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs. Business For Good San Diego, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition all secure funding opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs and collect research on the impact of border closures on local businesses. Their funding is allocated toward entrepreneurship training, technical assistance, and micro-grants. Additionally, initiatives like the San Diego and Imperial County Small Business Development Center, MAKE Project, and the International Rescue Committee’s San Diego Small Business Development Center offer job training, business strategizing, digital literacy, social media training, marketing training, and more.

San Diego Immigrant Entrepreneur Spotlight: Rosario Sotelo

San Diego prides itself on its taco industry, and immigrant entrepreneurs are central to it. El Borrego is a staple within the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. When Rosario Sotelo immigrated to the U.S. in 2000 from Guerrero, Mexico, she was disappointed by the lack of authentic Mexican food in her neighborhood. She began by selling lamb tacos from her driveway on the weekends and found such success that she was able to open a permanent location three months later. El Borrego is now one of the most renowned taco eateries in San Diego.

El Paso, TX

The El Paso-Ciudad Juarez megaregion, also known as Paso del Norte, is a hub for industry, trade, and commerce. El Paso’s immigrant community of 186,975, primarily from Mexico, makes up 22.2% of the population, with immigrant entrepreneurs numbering at 10,657. Immigrants in El Paso are 72.2% more likely to become entrepreneurs than U.S.-born citizens. Additionally, a 2019 study by New American Economy reveals that the number of immigrant entrepreneurs in the city increased by 25% in just one year (2017).

In October 2020, El Paso County created the Office of New Americans (ONA). ONA has initially been working with local nonprofits including Hope Border Institute and Annunciation House to offer housing, transportation, and assistance for other immediate needs of recent border crossers traveling to other destinations. ONA will also be the lead office for the new Welcoming El Paso Strategic Plan to help integrate immigrants into the social fabric of the community. ONA and the Welcoming El Paso Strategic Plan are still new and building capacity, but they currently provide citizenship practice tests, a naturalization fee schedule, and help constituents use the ICE detainee locator, an online system to locate individuals in detention. ONA also aims to establish initiatives that would provide resources for businesses and entrepreneurs and expand their aid beyond the immediate needs of new arrivals to immigrants who are vested entrepreneurs in the El Paso County community.

As is the case in San Diego, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations in the El Paso region are crucial to supporting immigrant entrepreneurs with funding options and professional development. Women’s Border Business Center and the Southwest Minority Supplier Development Council help immigrant entrepreneurs find funding options and connect them with corporations. Pioneers 21 is a nonprofit supporting business ventures by providing infrastructure and strategic support, mentorships, entrepreneurial education, and technical resources. To highlight the impact of immigrant entrepreneurs in the community, the University of Texas El Paso Institute of Oral History created the Paso Del Norte Entrepreneurship Oral History Project, which calls attention to the economic contributions of 36 immigrant entrepreneurs.

El Paso Immigrant Entrepreneur Spotlight: Ricardo Mora

An important link between El Paso and Juarez is the maquiladora industry, which allows raw materials to pass tariff-free through the border from the United States to Mexico for assembly into final goods. In this region, maquiladoras are most commonly usedhttp://Ricardo Mora for auto manufacturing. Ricardo Mora, an El Paso and Juarez native, created a startup incubator called Technology Hub to advance technological innovation in the maquiladora industry. His business, which focuses on immigrant entrepreneurs, helps startups in El Paso and Juarez by providing business training, funding opportunities, career coaching, and more. Technology Hub is reliant on the industry relationship between the cities of El Paso and Juarez and requires that border crossings remain open, and that travel across the border be timely.

Conclusion

Border regions are often most impacted by changes in immigration policy. Border closures and restricted foot traffic due to COVID-19 created financial hurdles and consumer shortages, causing many immigrant-owned businesses to struggle, with some closing permanently. Reopening the borders for business and tourism has helped border communities recover.

The municipal level supports in San Diego, and El Paso are crucial to supporting their immigrant entrepreneurs. In addition to support during the height of the pandemic, municipalities continue to provide professional development, funding, and access to business resources. In turn, immigrant entrepreneurs help to economically enhance their communities. While municipal support for immigrant entrepreneurs is key to bolstering their economic contributions, it is only one piece of the larger immigrant entrepreneurship puzzle. Municipal support by local government and nonprofits is necessary but could be bolstered by federal support to address the unique nature of border issues, border economies, and border culture to ensure that immigrant entrepreneurs can continue to thrive and support their local economies. Federal support could include expanding visa opportunities, including for foreign students, and creating place-based visas for individual states to meet their economic needs. Additionally, the federal government could invest in streamlined data collection on immigrant entrepreneurs to understand their full impact. In taking up these initiatives, the federal government could help maximize immigrant entrepreneurs’ economic contributions to their local communities.

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