By Jorge Cortes
MIAMI — Despite the pandemic (or maybe because of it), Miami’s tech industry is booming. Entrepreneurs are flocking here, lured by cash payments and low taxes, not to mention the sunshine. I love all of this about our burgeoning tech scene, but when I became a serial entrepreneur and social innovator in Miami more than a decade ago, I had different incentives: As an undocumented immigrant, becoming my own boss was a necessity.
You can’t become a legal employee without a social security number, but you can start your own business with the proper team. Over the last 12 years, I’ve been an independent contractor for a dozen local projects: co-founding co-working spaces for entrepreneurs and VCs, helping more than 120 companies from Latin America expand their business in the U.S. and, more recently, building a tech platform that connects companies with job-seeking professionals. I am proud to be one of more than 823,000 undocumented entrepreneurs across the country, but like them, I need legal status to make my full contribution.
That is why I support the Dream and Promise Act, which would put DREAMers like me on a pathway to citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the bill this past March, but it won’t become law without the support of 10 Senate Republicans. Unfortunately, conservatives like Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are refusing to negotiate. That’s incredibly shortsighted—supporting young people like me means supporting Florida’s economy.
In 2015, nearly a third of Latino Millennial entrepreneurs—over 200,000 people—were undocumented. Doctoral research from Iliana Perez, director of research and entrepreneurship at the nonprofit Immigrants Rising, found that our annual business income is $1,300-$1,500 higher on average than that of naturalized immigrants and American-born millennials. With 4,400 undocumented entrepreneurs in our state, according to New American Economy, we don’t want to lose this demographic to deportation. The same is true of Florida’s nearly 70,000 DREAMers, who serve vital roles in our healthcare system and food supply chain. As a group, we pay $290 million in taxes annually and hold $1.1 billion in household income.
I graduated from high school at 15 in my native Colombia and then moved to Miami to join my mother and our extended family. I was determined to get my college degree, but it took nearly seven years of bartending jobs to cover the out-of-state tuition—what undocumented immigrants must pay even if we are residents. In 2009, I graduated from Miami Dade College with my degree in business administration and two companies under my belt. One helped real estate companies produce 3D renderings and the other sold solar power solutions to residential and commercial properties. After an invitation to join the Colombian American Chamber of Commerce, I became an independent contractor, helping other entrepreneurs grow their companies. For these and other contributions, I was awarded a key to the City of Miami and a key to Miami Dade County in the same year.
I’d accomplished so much on my own terms that I was initially skeptical when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was announced in 2012. I was also reluctant to add my name to a government database, since Congress had failed for years to pass a DREAM act. But by 2015, I’d reached a professional roadblock. I needed a driver’s license and DACA benefits like protection from deportation and a social security number to make getting paid easier. DACA helped me launch UnifyIT and hire a staff of five. To date, we’ve helped 30 Latin American companies expand their business in the U.S.
Life as an undocumented immigrant has many personal and professional limitations. It took me far longer to earn my degree and build my company. But through ambition and hard work, I’ve overcome those obstacles and helped new Florida-based companies hire dozens of people and generate millions in revenue for our state. Just imagine how much the country’s nearly 1.2 million Dreamers could do with permanent legal status.
Most Americans agree that supporting us is the right thing to do. According to Pew, 74 percent of Americans—including more than half of Republicans—believe Dreamers deserve a pathway to citizenship. If America truly is the land of opportunity, the Senate should pass the Dream and Promise Act. Make those freedoms and options viable for those of us who have called this country home for decades. Don’t let America be an empty promise.
Jorge Andrés Cortes Restrepo is the founder of Unifyit.co and a serial entrepreneur and social innovator in Miami. Twitter: @TechCortes.