An Immigrant’s Story

The United States of America is truly a nation of immigrants. I wager that most Americans a) are immigrants themselves b) have an immigrant in the family tree not more than two generations removed or c) know an immigrant.

Immigrants are important to family wealth and legacy.
Often, an immigrant is an important player in starting to build a family’s wealth – but how many of us take the needed steps to record the story of our family’s immigrants and their contributions to the family wealth and legacy?

One of my Grandfathers came over on a ship, steerage class, from Switzerland. I don’t know what year it was. I don’t know what steamship line it was. I don’t know why he came. I only know he came because my Aunt (his daughter) talked about it to me. He came through Ellis Island, according to my Aunt – but I can find no record that uniquely identifies him going through there. He ended up in St. Louis, married to my Grandmother, but I don’t know why he came there or when he finally arrived.

I wish I knew these things, but everyone who could piece the story together is dead and dust. I can only record what little I do know for my family’s future generations to learn. He was born in 1848, and I guess he would have come over here in his twenties, so he might have endured the conditions in steerage described in these articles about steerage class passage conditions on ships.

We have a continuing wave of immigration to America.
He, along with immigrants in your family and many other families were part of a continuing wave of immigrants that continues to this day.

Our immigrant tradition is evidenced by the Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics 2010 yearbook which shows that in 1820, 8385 people established legal permanent residence and in 2010 1,042,625 did so – a 124+% increase. In 2010, 916,913 of these became US citizens.

Immigrants are important to the country’s prosperity.
Our history recounts multiple stories of the contributions that immigrants have made to this country – from the building of the Erie Canal by the Irish, to the building of the railroads by the Chinese, and to the current day infusion of Latino culture and language.

The absorption of new ideas, new expectations and eagerness to take on new challenges is what allows us to continue to grow. Single adult immigrants marry native born Americans – creating a blend of family cultures, traditions and legacies. Immigrants are a key force in cultural and economic growth.

This is evidenced by statistics showing that immigrants start more businesses than non-immigrants – according to Estimating the Contribution of Immigrant BusinessOwners to the U.S. Economy  by Robert W. Fairlie, Ph.D., S which states that “Immigrants are nearly 30 percent more likely to start a business than are nonimmigrants, and they represent 16.7 percent of all new business owners in the United States.”

Although my Grandfather did not start a business, our family history shows that he became a chef at a large metropolitan hotel and did well enough to become a landlord and landowner – as well as send money back to his parents and siblings in Switzerland.

Most families wealth is based on the efforts of a founding generation – perhaps a generation that immigrated to this country. But why is it that so many immigrants seem to be the ones to build that the foundation of family wealth – by starting a business?

Why do so many immigrants start a business?
Based on my own theory and observations I believe that immigrants start more businesses than native born citizens because:

Immigrants have less to lose.
Many of the country’s immigrants came with very few assets. They struck out on their own to make their way in the world and landed on their feet through taking on any challenge and making opportunities work for them, through their own hard work.

Immigrants are more likely to take risks.
Just getting the idea to leave all that is familiar, tossing it around in their mind, and then deciding to do it shows that an immigrant is willing to tackle the new and unknown, leaving behind family, friends, fortunes and cultures. Of course they are more likely to take risks, they already took the biggest one in leaving home!

Immigrants have a different mindset.
Most immigrants have a dream – they want a different life for themselves and their offspring. They consciously shape their own destiny by staking out a claim and working towards it each and every day. They want to be in control of that destiny, their lives and their livelihood and hence are more likely to start their own business.

Immigrants have been through a selection process.
They have shown, just by the fact of immigrating, that they are more industrious, more diligent, more intelligent and in better shape than those they left behind (or those native born in our country). Would you give up an OK job here to go to another country to start all over, having to learn a second language and leaving all familiar things behind? Many immigrants have done so. The ones who wanted to immigrate but didn’t make it, were selected out. The populations remaining behind and the native populations here were not forced through a selection process.

Capture your immigrant’s story!
Many native born Americans look down their noses at immigrants. After all, they are (mostly) poor, different, not acclimated to the ‘American way of life’ and insist on maintaining their own heritage and culture even in their new country. Some second generation Americans, children of immigrant’s, are ashamed to be different, unaware of the vision and dream their parents have and unwilling to record their immigrant’s story for their future family generations.

If you have an immigrant in your family (and you probably do), please preserve their unique contribution to your family legacy and your family wealth. I wish my family had done so.  Write down their stories, tell them to the kids, be proud of all parts of your heritage. Your family legacy and lore depend on it.

What’s your family’s immigration story?

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