For Immigrant Small Business Owners in The US, Trust Is Still Scarce

It’s been about eight months since Jose Antonio Vargas’ June 2011 letter shook the newsrooms when it offered to the world the confession of his status and story as an undocumented immigrant.

Surprisingly, nothing has happened to him yet. Vargas is waiting. He’s still waiting to hear something from US immigration authorities in response to his letter. And he’s waiting for the laws to change too. In the meantime, he’ll continue to vigorously pound out news stories from his office in New York City.

Even though it might feel like it at times, Jose Antonio Vargas is not alone in his confusion toward the laws that US immigrants face. For a great number of immigrants who come to the US, navigating the law is like trying to solve a maze.

In the case of immigrants who seek to start their own small businesses in cities like New York, a harsh fine is usually the raw first signal of a law in existence for behavior that might have otherwise been informed by cultural norms, like punishment following the failure of New York City’s Chinatown shop owners to clean the sidewalks outside their front doors.

Failure to meet compliance is one of a number of problems that immigrant small business owners face. Scarcity of credit, unwillingness to take on borrowers with little collateral, and a strong perception of unusually high risk are tough obstacles for immigrants who own the drive to start small shops, manufacturing companies, restaurants and retail outfits.

Some problems are surmountable though. According to a blog run by the New York Times, micro-lenders like ACCION USA are filling the void where other banks see too much risk and not enough benefit. This New York-based micro-finance institution is helping to find credit resources and is putting trust in people otherwise viewed as high-risk borrowers.

But the caveat for keeping afloat does not rely on simply finding a lender who will grant you the cash flow you need. Having a great product or service is not the end of it. Keeping afloat is just as much about understanding the law, which dictates what you can and cannot do as a business. Services related to navigating regulation for immigrant small business start-ups, even though they are growing, are still not potent enough to provide what immigrants really need: an ability for being able to navigate the law supplemented by the language training needed to understand it.

For all the trickery Vargas has admitted to using for his own navigation through American society as an undocumented immigrant, he understands the law well. He knows what he’s up against. He knows where he thinks it’s broken it. He knows what he wants to fix too. And above all, he knows how he thinks it should be fixed.

That much, at least, should earn others around Vargas the trust he deserves to work toward a change and a solution. I think that is the same trust that so many immigrant small business owners do not have when they arrive for work in the American City: trust in their understanding of the law. The majority of them own good intentions, and if fortune falls on their side enough, they might just open up shop. Another open shop to join the immigrants who already make up 48% of New York City’s small business entrepreneurs should be viewed as beneficial for all.

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