Whether it is the Korean greengrocer, the Polish butcher, the Ethiopian cabby or the Cuban restaurateur, immigrants who run their own businesses have long occupied a special place in popular imaginings of the American dream.
But a study of U.S. Census Bureau data found that high levels of immigrant entrepreneurship are a myth in major metropolitan areas, with one exception: Washington.
The report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a District-based think tank that advocates lower levels of immigration, concluded that nearly 14 percent of immigrants in the Washington-Baltimore area are self-employed, compared with 10 percent of other area residents. About one in five of all self-employed adults in the region are foreign-born, the report said.
But Washington was the exception among the nine U.S. metropolitan areas that have the most immigrants. It ranked highest in immigrant self-employment and was the only one in which immigrants outpaced other residents by a sizable margin.
Nationally, immigrants once were significantly more entrepreneurial than other people, but that is no longer true, the report said. In 1960, 13.8 percent of immigrants were self-employed, compared with 9.6 percent of U.S. natives. By 1997, the rate was about the same for both population groups, between 11 percent and 12 percent.
"While there is no evidence that immigrants nationally are more entrepreneurial than natives, it may be that Washington is the one area where immigrants have slightly higher rates of self-employment," said Steven A. Camarota, the report's author. He cautioned that the figure for the Washington area was based on a small sample, about 500 immigrant adults.
Advocates for immigrants criticized the study, saying it contradicts years of research showing that immigrants are more entrepreneurial because they are risk takers who are beginning new lives in a foreign land. They also said the study failed to adjust for illegal immigrants, who are more likely to be counted by the Census Bureau today and may be dragging down the new figures.
Stephen Moore, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said small businesses run by immigrants have fueled "the renaissance of American cities over the last 25 years."
"If you're talking about Washington, just look around. Everything from the high-tech companies in Northern Virginia to the concession stands by the monuments are run by immigrants. I'm looking out my window right now, and there's an Indian woman behind a hot dog stand," he said. "Washington may be the golden example, but this is not unique to Washington."
Robert Manning, a Georgetown University sociologist who studies immigration in the region, attributed the high level of self-employment among local immigrants to their being unusually well educated.
Census surveys in recent years show that immigrants in the Washington area are half as likely to be high school dropouts as immigrants elsewhere. And more than half of Washington area immigrants have completed college, compared with barely a third of other area residents and about a quarter of immigrants and natives nationally.
Manning said more research is needed on whether self-employed immigrants in the area are high-wage earners who create jobs, such as those who start technology companies, or low-wage earners, including self-employed maids. The study found that immigrant entrepreneurs in the Washington area earn less on average than they do elsewhere.
Camarota attributed the high self-employment rate among local immigrants in part to the population's diversity. Entrepreneurship varies widely by country of origin, and the region has large numbers of immigrants from several groups that have high rates of self-employment, including Koreans, Chinese and Indians, as well as smaller numbers from Cuba and the Mideast.
Locally, about 26 percent of immigrants from the Mideast and Africa are self-employed, as are 15 percent of immigrants from Asia and 5 percent of those from Latin America, Camarota said.
Self-employment rates for immigrants and natives in U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest immigrant populations:
By percent, for employed persons 25 and over:
Location Natives Immigrants
Washington 10.0 13.8
San Francisco 13.9 13.7
Miami 13.5 12.7
Los Angeles 14.2 12.4
Chicago 9.4 10.1
Houston 10.9 11.4
New York 11.2 9.5
Boston 9.6 6.5
Dallas 10.2 6.4
Balance of country 11.9 11.3
Total U.S. 11.8 11.3
SOURCE: Center for Immigration Studies, based on a combined sample of the U.S. Census Bureau's March 1997 and 1998 Current Population Surveys.