As a little girl in Mexico, Armida Ramos remembers spending many days in her mother’s restaurant.
“I always used to be helping my mom, so in the future I wanted to have my own business,” she said.
She moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 14, and brought her entrepreneurial instincts with her. The result is La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream, now with two locations in Madison — 6712 Odana Rd and 4512 E. Washington Ave.
She started the Mexican-style ice cream business “from scratch” with her sister, Liliana Valerio, a difficult process at times for an immigrant. The effort paid off and today, her customer base is as diverse as the 30 flavors she offers, including pine nut, corn queso, tequila and a variety of fruits.
“We have a mix, we have everybody,” she said. “Chinese people, they love the coconut, the mango. They love it because there are some flavors they use in their country.”
Ramos is bringing more than fresh dairy flavors to Wisconsin; she’s adding dollars to the economy. She, along with 13,000 other immigrant entrepreneurs in Wisconsin, positively impact the economy, according to a report released Tuesday by the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE).
The data looks at immigrants’ economic impact, broken up by congressional district, and includes both legal and undocumented immigrants. It concludes that immigrants make up an economic boon, filling holes in the workforce, although some dispute this claim.
PNAE is an advocacy group dedicated to studying how immigrants affect the American economy. The study started over a year ago, with the 2016 presidential election on the horizon.
“Immigration was, if not the top, one of the top issues in the campaign,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of PNAE. “We knew it would be relevant whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won.”
The study aims to localize economic data, which Robbins said shows that innovation is hugely beneficial to economies all over the country.
“The biggest thing pulling the debate has been the local data. Everybody cares what happens at home in their communities,” he said. “(For legislators) the first question is going to be, ‘What does this mean in my district?’”
Madison is in Wisconsin’s second congressional district, which includes Dane, Iowa, Lafayette, Sauk and Green Counties, and parts of Richland and Rock Counties. Data for the study was pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wisconsin’s second congressional district has 48,561 immigrant residents, the data found, making up 6.7 percent of the population. Among those are 1,205 immigrant entrepreneurs.
Wisconsin as a whole is home to some 274,300 immigrant residents, making up 4.8 percent of the population. About 13,300 of those residents are entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is an important part of the economic engine, said Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the Wisconsin School of Business. Almost all net job creation in last 20 years has come from companies five years old or younger, he said.
“Job creation is very much driven by startups,” he said.
He said the likelihood of an immigrant becoming an entrepreneur is almost twice that of a native-born citizen.
“If you’re an immigrant, you’re already a bit of a risk-taker,” Olszewski said. “If you wanted the status quo, you would have stayed in the home country.”
National statistics show how important immigration is to entrepreneurship, he said. A quarter of all engineering and technology startups and half of private companies that are valued at over a billion dollars (known as “unicorns”) have an immigrant co-founder.
The PNAE study found that foreign-born populations in the district are both less likely to have a high school degree and more likely to have a graduate degree.
It shows that 23.4 percent of immigrants have less than a high school education, compared to 5.6 percent of native born population, and 27.1 percent of immigrants have a graduate degree, almost twice as high as the 14.3 percent of native-born residents.
“This lets them assume positions at the high and low ends of the workforce that might otherwise remain unfilled, hurting local businesses or leading employers to relocate elsewhere,” the study said.
“One of the great things that’s happened over the last 50 years is that Americans are getting more educated, more and more Americans are going to college degrees,” Robbins said. “And that's been a hugely good thing for American families, but it creates a challenge for some of society.”
Over the past two-decades the supply of native-born, low-skill workers ages 24 to 45 has dropped by 12 million, he said.
Using animal slaughtering as an example, Robbins said many immigrants have filled the gaps and work in those low-skill jobs, while native-born individuals fill the managerial roles.
“It’s not to say that immigrants and native born never compete in jobs, but they by and large have different skill sets,” he said.
Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, disputes the idea that there is little job competition between native and foreign workers.
“(PNAE) comprises business leaders and politicians willing to throw American workers at all skill levels under the bus in order to benefit from cheap foreign labor,” he wrote in an email.
He said that 8 million undocumented immigrants work in construction, manufacturing and services while over 15 million Americans look for full-time work. He argued that these are jobs Americans will do, as native-born individuals make up the majority of workers in those sectors.
Others insist immigrants are essential. Mayra Medrano, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, pointed to the dairy industry, where immigrants make up more than 40 percent of hired help.
“A lot of workers on these farms are immigrants, and if you remove that, you essentially collapse the dairy industry in Wisconsin,” Medrano said.
Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP), agreed that foreign-born workers represent a crucial part of the economy.
“We certainly see immigrants as both employees and entrepreneurs, and for that reason we can ill-afford to lose that part of our population,” Jadin said.
On the other end of the workforce, immigrants with graduate degrees are an undervalued asset, said Olszewski. Madison draws some of the best students in the world for school, and many students want to stay and start their career, Olszewski said.
“That’s something we have going for us as a country that almost every other nation in the world would die for,” he said. “To choose to come here to go to school and enjoy all the benefits of our country and region, and want to stay here, is a real economic strength.”
Gorak argued that highly educated immigrants are the minority.
“The majority of immigrants entering this country now have few skills and little education, and they compete for jobs with our native-born working poor,” he said. “Only one in 15 visas issued to foreign workers is based on skill levels.”
The study found that the majority of immigrants in the district are of working age, defined as ages 25 to 64. This is a higher percentage of working-age individuals than in the native-born population: 68.9 percent of immigrants fall in this age bracket compared to 52.8 percent of the native population.
Robbins said this helps solve the problem of the mass retirement of the baby boomer generation.
“We want to make sure that we have a growing population here, and we’re not doing it the natural way, so we have to do it through immigration and emigration,” Jadin said.
Gorak also disagrees with the idea that immigrants are needed to replace an aging workforce, citing a study from the Center For Immigration studies that states the real problem is the large population of working-age people who are unemployed.
The study also found that foreign-born populations earn about $1.4 billion in household income, resulting in $381.2 million paid in taxes, $127.4 million of which goes to state and local government.
The American Immigration Council also stated that in 2010, undocumented immigrants statewide paid almost $100 million in state and local taxes.
Robbins said that taxes are often overlooked in the immigration debate.
“Too often the debate is framed as, ‘This is a job, either an immigrant takes it or an American takes it,'” he said. “(Immigrants are) paying taxes, and they're consuming.”
The study found $1.0 billion worth of immigrant spending power in the second congressional district.
“You also have to recognize (immigrants’) role in consumption and in investment,” Jadin said. “When you look at the income for instance, that aspect of our population played a significant role in the movement in dollars throughout our economy.”
The goal of the study is to start a conversation, Robbins said.
“(We want to) make the debate more-fact based ... we want to put something out there that people could use to have as serious discussion,” he said. “Where are immigrants working, how does that impact our economy, what will our policy be?”
But Gorak finds the implications of the study unreliable.
“(PNAE) lies through its teeth when it asks the American people to believe that this nation's economy cannot survive unless we continue to increase the levels of immigrant labor,” he said.