Congressional Briefing on “Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective”

September 12, 2014
Congressional Briefing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building
Speakers: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI), Zulema Valdez (University of California, Merced), Xiaojian Zhao (University of California, Santa Barbara), Dane Kennedy (National History Center)

GHI Director Hartmut Berghoff presented some of the results of the GHI's research project Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present at a Congressional Briefing on "Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective" for members of Congress and their staff, organized by the National History Center of the American Historical Association in cooperation with the GHI.  In addition to Hartmut Berghoff, the briefing featured Zulema Valdez and Xiaojian Zhao. Dane Kennedy, Director of the National History Center, moderated the discussion. Due to considerable current interest in the topic of immigration, the briefing had a large audience and was taped by CSPAN.

In his remarks, Professor Berghoff began by examining the case of German immigrant entrepreneurs, a successful but inconspicuous group, which is the focus of the GHI's "Immigrant Entrepreneurship" project. He argued that the ability to draw on immigrant entrepreneurship was a key factor in the United States' emergence as a world economic power and remains crucial to its economic success today. The United States has traditionally allowed immigrants ample scope in pursuing entrepreneurial careers, which has helped it retain its attractiveness in the eyes of one generation of prospective immigrants after another. The U.S. is still the most important destination worldwide for immigrants, attracting roughly one out of every five immigrants. At more than 13 percent, the share of foreign-born residents in the U.S. today is not far below the historic peak in the years before World War I. And what is more, the nexus between immigration and economic vitality is still very strong. Immigrants are much more likely to be self-employed or to own their own business than the native-born population. This indisputable finding sits awkwardly with U.S. immigration policy, which has become more restrictive over the past 130 years. Berghoff therefore spoke in favor of an immigration policy that allows future entrepreneurs to come to the United States and build successful businesses. Illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for years should also have an opportunity for social integration.

Focusing on the labor market history of the Mexican-origin people, Professor Valdez traced how a temporary, low-wage, low-skilled, immigrant workforce transitioned to a permanent, if fragile, entrepreneurial class. Finally, Professor Zhao presented recent research on Asian immigrant entrepreneurship. Focusing on the impact of the global economy, she illuminated how changes in the U.S. economy and economic development in Asia have become increasingly important in Asian American entrepreneurship and Asian American ethnic economies.