Israel Martinez opened his first business when he was 21, less than five years after moving to the United States from Mexico with no money in his pocket.
In the last 10 years, he has owned and operated three businesses in Mississippi, and there's no end in sight to his entrepreneurial spirit.
Martinez is one of 4,208 immigrant business owners who accounted for 3.5 percent of all self-employed Mississippi residents in 2015 and generated $107.3 million in business income, according to a report released by the American Immigration Council.
The report outlined the impact immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have on Mississippi's economy.
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According to the report, immigrant-led households in the state paid $245.4 million in federal taxes and $112.3 million in state and local taxes in 2014.
Undocumented workers in Mississippi paid an estimated $22.7 million in state and local taxes in 2014. Their contribution would rise to $28 million if they could receive legal status, the report stated, while recipients of DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — in Mississippi paid an estimated $4.2 million in state and local taxes in 2016.
More than 11,000 Mississippi citizens live with someone who is undocumented.
‘It can be hard to find a job’
Martinez, 32, of Ridgeland, moved to the state from Mexico when he was 17. He initially found it hard to find work and, on a whim, decided to create his own fate by opening a business.
In the last decade, the Ridgeland business owner has opened three businesses and sold two. He's owned and operated a computer repair shop, a language center that taught English and Spanish and, currently, owns Torshel Storm Shelter, construction company which assembles and installs pre-manufactured safe rooms from Oklahoma.
"When an immigrant comes in, it can be hard to find a job," Martinez said. "Sometimes your best option is to open your own business. I saw many opportunities in Mississippi so I thought, 'Why not?'"
While based in Ridgeland, Martinez said his latest company is quickly going national. It has done jobs in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia and Kentucky, he said, and has jobs lined up in Chicago, New York, California and Nebraska.
The trickle-down effect has an impact, too, he said. As a result of his booming business, Martinez said he's been able to buy his mother a house and owns several rental properties.
Martinez will spend over $300,000 on concrete and materials this year, he said, "creating a demand for other services."
He has four employees who each make between $15 and $30 an hour. Martinez noted the wage is high partly because they are construction jobs but said he also makes a point to pay his people well.
Martinez knows the struggle of finding work and wanted to ensure other immigrants don't have that problem. His business allows him to create an opportunity for himself and others, he said.
"Owning your own business is really a great thing," Martinez said. "You set your own time, your own schedule but also you create jobs and that's something that I love."
Martinez was one of 6,402 immigrants working in the construction field in 2015, making up 6 percent of Mississippi's construction workforce that year, according to the report.
In 2015, there were 6,301 immigrant workers employed in the manufacturing industry in the state while 4,284 others worked in "accommodation and food services," 4,173 in educational services and 4,103 in retail.
His business would not survive without immigrant workers
Jerry Hutto, a fourth generation blueberry farmer in south Mississippi, said his business couldn't survive without immigrant workers.
Owner of Blueberry Farm in Waynesboro, Hutto employs 35 people each harvest season to pick blueberries off his 50 acres. This year, 25 of those 35 were immigrants from Guatemala in the United States on an HB2 visa, allowing them to work seasonally in the United States.
Under the visa, Hutto is required to provide housing for the workers and pay them $10.38 an hour, making up 75 percent of his overhead. Hutto said he tries to employ "locals" but can't find anyone to make it through the season.
"I'd have to put my blueberry farm down if I didn't have these workers," he said. "We're required by law to pay $10.38 an hour so you can see how far out of line we are having to pay to get labor. You can't get workers for $7.25 (minimum wage) no matter what you're doing.
"It's just a no brainer, and every year we try to hire local, and they last about two days out in the field picking blueberries. If I had to depend on that, I never would get them picked."
Hutto said there are 1,500 acres of blueberries in Wayne County, the third largest industry in the area behind timber and poultry. They package and deliver 3 million pounds of blueberries annually.
Without immigrant workers, Hutto said the food landscape in Mississippi and the nation would be vastly different.
"If we're going to be able to buy groceries or have foods in our stores, we're going to have to have workers to get the product out of the field," he said. "We can't get any locals to do the work that we need done in our industry or any industry.
He added, "If California did not have migrant workers, the United States would starve to death."
A ‘bad reputation’
Hutto said he feels like immigrant workers unfairly have a bad reputation in the United States, a reputation he feels compelled to speak out against.
"If someone sees a person from Guatemala walking down the street, the first thing they think is, 'He's illegal,' which is what our federal government tells us. But they're not," Hutto said. "They listen to our government, they believe what they hear, and that's the problem. Most of the people in the farming industry are basically good people. We're not going to hire thugs or rapists or what these people are being accused of. They've got a bad name but they're very nice people. In 30 years, we've never had any problems.
"They come here to work, they spend their money here in the U.S.. They do very well. They make more money here in four to five weeks than they can make in Guatemala. I know our U.S. senators think they're taking away from local people, but that's the furthest thing from the truth. It would save us 75 percent of our cost of labor if we could hire local."
Martinez said he's proud of what he's accomplished since coming to the United States and encouraged others to start their own business, helping not only themselves but their local community.
"We create jobs, we create revenue, and other people are looking at us, our children, primarily, and that's really good for the community," he said. "Business owners, they are the backbone of America...If they have a dream to do something, go for it. in my case, I came with zero dollars and now I do very well and I want to share the good things with them. It's doable and I encourage them to do it."