As Americans prepare to celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday that marks the harvest of some of the first European immigrants to America, they may want to settle in with some reading appropriate for the day. A good choice would be Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and How They Will Save the American Worker) (FTC-mandated disclosure: I got a free review copy and if you buy the book via the Amazon link on this page FutureOfCapitalism.com gets a small revenue share). Written by an immigration lawyer, Richard Herman, and an immigration reporter, Robert Smith, from Cleveland, Ohio, the book is full of enlightening statistics and inspiring stories of immigrant success.
The achievements documented here are impressive. Immigrants co-founded half the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and a quarter of the biotech companies in New England. Immigrants are more likely than other Americans to launch companies and to obtain patents. Intel, co-founded by Hungarian immigrant Andrew Grove, employs 90,000 people, while Google, co-founded by Russian immigrant Sergey Brin, employs 20,000. An immigrant from India, Vinod Khosla, co-founded Sun Microsystems. The CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, is Indian-born. News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch is an immigrant from Australia. Yahoo! was founded by Jerry Yang, an immigrant from Taiwan; Paypal by Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa; eBay by Pierre Omidyar, an immigrant from France. Immigrant alumni of MIT alone employ about 100,000 people in 2,300 American companies with $1.6 billion in annual sales.
Google is a great example. Somehow, even with all the books out there on the company's success, most Google users probably don't realize that the involvement of immigrants in the company's success is so extensive. It goes way beyond just Mr. Brin. Mr. Brin's Ph.D. adviser at Stanford was an Indian immigrant and an early Google investor. Another Stanford professor, a Canadian immigrant, introduced Mr. Brin and his co-founder to a German immigrant who became the company's first major investor. The second round of funding for Google was led by an immigrant from Wales. The company's logo was designed by an immigrant from Israel. An immigrant from Switzerland was one of the company's first 10 employees and an immigrant from Iran was its 12th employee.
The authors focus on a few lesser-known immigrant success stories and tell them in some detail. There are Te-Ming Chiang, an immigrant from Taiwan, and Ric Fulop, an immigrant from Venezuela, who founded the battery-maker A123, which powers Black & Decker's professional power tools. There is Monte Ahuja, an immigrant from India who started working as a ditch-digger and sleeping on a cot at a Y in Cleveland, then founded Transtar Industries, which he built into the world's largest seller of transmission parts, with 1,800 employees and $500 million in annual revenues. (The rise of Indian-Americans is a story in itself; the book records that they own more than 40% of America's hotels and motels, dominate national spelling bee contests, and are the most highly educated ethnic group in America and the identifiable group with the highest median household income.)
There is Farouk Shami, who was the most successful hairdresser in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and who after coming to America founded a shampoo, hair dye, and nail polish company with $1 billion a year in revenues. And Quy "Charlie" Ton, an immigrant from Vietnam whose more than 1,000 Regal Nails outlets are America's largest chain of nail salons.
Why the success? To some degree, immigrants are a self-selecting group. "To immigrate is an entrepreneurial act," the authors quote Edward Roberts, founder of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, as saying. There are also a lot of Americans with immigrant roots in the pool of potential successes: the authors write that "At least half of America's 300 million people are an immigrant, a child or a grandchild of an immigrant, or married to one."
If there's a flaw to the account, it's a sometimes frustrating failure to distinguish between entrepreneurship and corporate welfare. An article about an immigrant-founded solar energy firm in Toledo, Ohio reports that it was funded by "family savings and state grants." The book breathlessly describes Mr. Fulop's preparations to deliver A123's application for $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money to build battery factories in the Midwest, and reports that the Department of Energy was an investor in the firm alongside Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
Expanding immigration and overhauling immigration law seems to lag behind the Obama administration's other priorities, such as "stimulus," health care, financial regulation, and carbon reduction. But the authors make a case that changes to immigration laws could help close the federal deficit by creating more growth and more taxpayers, adding between $66 billion and $100 billion to federal revenues over 10 years. They mention two simple proposals. One, the "Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy Act," or the "Staple Act," would effectively staple a green card to the diploma of foreigners who earn their doctoral degrees in America. Another, the "add a zero" plan of conservative columnist George Will, would raise the number of employment green cards issued each year to 1.4 million from 140,000.
In the end judgments about immigration policy will, or should, turn less on calculations about the federal fisc and more on assessments of America's national character as a refuge and a place where newcomers can innovate and build new lives, as they have from the days of those pioneering Pilgrims right through to the contemporary characters whose stories are so compellingly told in this book.