DETROIT (AP) — As lawmakers in Washington work out an overhaul of the immigration system, a Michigan-based social and economic services agency has launched a comprehensive program to help immigrants open or expand businesses.
Dearborn-based ACCESS recently held a graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of its Immigrant Entrepreneur Development Program. It’s one of several immigrant- and refugee-focused efforts in the organization’s new Growth Center division.
The Detroit area, which is home to one of the nation’s largest Arab populations, also has Nigerian, Bangladeshi, Bosnian and other communities. The program aims to assist newcomers in their entrepreneurial quest through classes, individual business coaching and direct access to programs and services inside and outside of the organization, such as business incubators and financial institutions.
Sonia Harb, the Growth Center’s senior director, said ACCESS has provided worker training and development for years, but the economic downturn a few years ago forced its leaders to retool and expand offerings.
“Historically, employers really embrace an immigrant workforce because they’re dedicated and hardworking,” she said. “When the economy took a dive, it became more and more difficult for immigrants to land those positions. Employers did not then look at immigrants as a priority audience to fill a position. We decided to try and think creatively to increase competiveness of immigrant job applicants.”
Among the assets of many immigrants, she said, is a knack to start businesses and take the risks inherent in doing so. But Harb and her colleagues couldn’t find existing programs in Michigan that responded to all the specific needs of entrepreneurial immigrants, such as help overcoming barriers of culture and language.
ACCESS, formerly known as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, also secured a grant to get the entrepreneurial program started from the New Economy Initiative, a philanthropic endeavor that itself is funded with $100 million from 10 local and national foundations. The initiative’s goal is to help create an innovation-based economy in the Detroit area.
Dijana Bucalo, a former Bosnian refugee who settled in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, is a self-described “clothing artist” with a fashion design and costume-making shop in the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. She came to the United States in 1996 after war in her homeland — knowing no English but with experience as a fashion designer.
Still, she took a job far from her preferred field. Bucalo became a real estate agent and said she was successful at it until the housing market tanked a few years ago.
“I should be thankful the economy went bad,” she said. “It helped me to think more seriously about my business, my skills and my trade.”
By the time she came to the immigrant entrepreneur program, she had established her company but “was missing the business side of my business.” The classes and consultations helped her with many things, particularly tracking her cash-flow and building her confidence.
“I was very hesitant about pricing my work — ‘This is my art, this is what I’m making,’” she said. “I had a hard time appreciating my own work. ... I was working with my heart before, now I’m working with my brain.”
One of her goals this year is to hire a couple of employees with sewing and fashion experience. And that’s the ultimate aim of the entrepreneurial program: strengthening an entrepreneur who will in turn create jobs and strengthen the region.
Bipartisan immigration legislation is expected to be unveiled in the U.S. Senate this week after months of closed-door negotiations. The landmark legislation would overhaul legal immigration programs, require all employers to verify the legal status of their workers, greatly boost border security and put millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally on a 13-year path to citizenship.
Farm workers already here illegally would get a faster path to citizenship than other immigrants, and another new visa program would allow tens of thousands of new workers into the country to labor in the nation’s farms, fields and dairies. A visa program for high-tech workers now capped at 65,000 per year would nearly double, and foreigners getting advanced degrees in math, technology, science and engineering from U.S. institutions would more easily qualify for permanent residence.
Harb said the ACCESS program complements federal efforts, but added it’s not focusing on the high-tech, high-skilled workers. Instead, it seeks those who wouldn’t necessarily be able to come to this country and automatically launch a business.
“Our initiative works with those ... who have (fewer) resources but yet have that drive and acumen and desire,” she said.