Ten years ago, Alessandro Negret missed out on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — better known as DACA — a policy that gives some immigrant youth who have been admitted to the United States as children. Brought to America for work permits and protection from deportation. In 2008, Negret was arrested for getting drunk in public and fighting with a police officer. While he eventually removed his record 10 years later, it prevented him from qualifying for immigration relief.
His lack of DACA changed the course of his life—pushing him to success. Now, the 39-year-old, who immigrated from Mexico with his mother as a child, is an entrepreneur. He earns a six-figure salary as a communications, political and philanthropic strategy consultant. He makes his own schedule. He wants to buy his first house in Los Angeles.
“As people of color, growing up in poverty pushes us. I think the extra layer of being unclear about the situation hit me even harder,” Negret said.
Negret, who launched Alessandro Advisors six years ago, is one of an estimated 820,000 entrepreneurs in the country without legal status, a jump from 770,000 in 2016, according to a study by the New American Economy, a research and immigration advocacy think tank based in New York.
Much of that growth is driven by millennials and younger immigrants, said Ileana Perez, director of research and entrepreneurship at Immigrants Rising, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization that works with immigrant youth who are in the country without legal status. . These immigrant youth would have benefited from DACA if then-President Trump had not terminated the program five years earlier and if the court decision had not limited the government to granting DACA renewals but not accepting new applications.
Perez said he first saw immigrant youth taking an interest in entrepreneurship around 2017, when Trump began opening up the DACA program, closing in on a new generation of recipients.
“It immediately got a lot of people thinking about Plan B,” Perez said.
This year, an estimated 100,000 immigrant youth, most of whom are in California, graduated high school without legal status and without the benefits of DACA, meaning many have been forced out of the labor market. Some will go to college. Others may get the job done without authorization and with a false identity.
But they all have the option to legally work for themselves or start their own business. Although federal law prohibits employers from hiring someone who resides illegally in the country, there is no law preventing such a person from starting a business or becoming an independent contractor.
As a result, some young immigrants are forming limited liability companies or starting freelance careers – even providing jobs to US citizens – as the sustainability of DACA remains uncertain. This month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to issue its decision, deciding whether DACA is valid. Whatever the 5th Circuit decides, the matter is likely to reach the US Supreme Court.
In 2016, Immigrant Rising launched an entrepreneurship fund that provided more than $400,000 in grants to entrepreneurs lacking legal status. In 2021, the state awarded the organization a Social Entrepreneurs for Economic Development grant of $5.41 million, which allowed the organization to provide micro-grant and technical assistance to nearly 800 immigrant entrepreneurs in California in 2021 and 2022.
Microgrants range from $5,000 to $10,000 for immigrants in California who already have a business or are thinking of starting one. The organization also offers entrepreneurial and technical support and a thorough course – in English, Spanish, Tagalog and Korean – on how to create a business plan and how to start a limited liability company or sole proprietorship.
Perez said less than half of the organization’s grantees are millennials who have been left behind by DACA. An estimated 36% are 18 to 34 years old, she said. A little over 60% are 35 to 64 years old. About 3% are 65 or older.
“In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, more undocumented people will be pushed to entrepreneurship in the next few years,” Perez said.
Some DACA recipients are already preparing in case DACA falls.
Dania Joseph, 28, a DACA recipient and consultant, said she has always had an entrepreneurial mindset, but the precarious state of the program prompted her to start her sole proprietorship in 2019.
“Given the uncertain future of DACA, there was no clear way forward,” Joseph said. “I needed to prepare for what was to come.”
She still works part-time but is primarily focused on growing DRJ Consulting, which provides communications and racial equity counseling to immigrant rights organizations.
Joseph didn’t think it would be wise to rely only on DACA, especially given that he is the primary caretaker for his 86-year-old grandmother. Born in Belize, Joseph left his native country at the age of 7 to live with his grandmother in Los Angeles. Her visa expired and she lost her legal status.
Working for himself would eventually give Joseph the freedom to live without DACA in a “worst case scenario.” But his business also gives him something DACA can never do.
“Without papers, working for yourself just isn’t a way to survive,” Joseph said. “In many instances, this is a way for them to thrive.”
Such is the case of Armando Ibanez, a 40-year-old filmmaker who lives at Paramount. He said that he is not sure that if he had qualified for DACA, he would have regretted starting his own film production company in 2020.
“If I had DACA I would be an employee in just one company and I would be fine,” he said.
The 40-year-old, who left Acapulco, Mexico, for the US at age 18, was too old to qualify for DACA. He took jobs around while studying in film school, but knew he would not be able to legally work for a film studio. He said that this hurdle turned into an opportunity.
This entrepreneurial approach is not new and is very much part of the DNA of many immigrants, Ibanez and others like him say.
“Many in our community, we have no choice but to hustle,” he said. “We see street vendors there. They are the entrepreneurs that people don’t talk about. We see women Selling a firearm … they may not know it but they are the entrepreneurs in the community.”
His lack of legal status led him to think big and led him to develop his own production company. Ibanez madeuncontrollable tales, an award-winning YouTube series that follows the journey of Fernando Gutierrez, a queer immigrant from Mexico living in the US without legal status. He has other projects, such as making a small document For Lush, the handmade cosmetics company.
Zasil Vazquez, who was a DACA recipient when he and his mother opened their restaurant, Sazin, in Huntington Park in 2021, said his lack of legal status has made him “the hustler I am today”.
Vazquez said, “I will tell you that I know a lot of immigrants, including my mother.” “They have to work twice as hard to be able to provide for themselves. They have to be able to come to this country, learn the language, learn the customs, and build something for themselves.”
But Vazquez, who is a DJ and runs an event production company, admits that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Aspiring teachers, nurses and doctors, for example, rely on their work permits and cannot easily strike on their own.
Some relatively immigrant-friendly states, such as California, make it easier for immigrants to start their own businesses without legal status and without DACA. But other states are not as friendly. For example, only a few states — including California — provide full access to all immigrants without the legal status to obtain a professional license. Most other states provide or do not allow limited access. Some, such as Florida, allow DACA recipients or others to obtain professional licenses who have work authorization.
State restrictions on professional licenses for people without legal status are largely the result. 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, The law prohibits immigrants from obtaining professional or business licenses in the country unless states pass their own laws to allow it. Some states, such as Arizona and Texas, do not allow this. Alabama prohibits immigrants without legal status from obtaining business licenses in most or all occupations that require a license.
Negret, who lives in Boyle Heights, provided consulting services to Los Angeles County to develop its LA Rivers master plan.
But all that hustle can be overwhelming mentally and emotionally too, Negret said.
“For some, you’re constantly thinking about where your next meal might come from or whether you’ll be able to pay your rent,” he said. “If you don’t have a support system, it can break you.”