Suraj Patel’s great uncle immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and his family joined him at their first motel.

Suraj Patel’s great uncle immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and his family joined
him at their first motel. (Submitted photo)

‘Build a Bigger Table’

Suraj Patel, first-gen immigrant, son of a hotelier and political activist, promotes the value of immigration to U.S. economy

Indian Americans’ impact on the U.S. hotel industry is no secret. The ethnic group owns more than half of the 52,000-plus hotels in the U.S.

Most owners consider themselves small business operators.

Collectively, however, they are responsible for the modern evolution of the hospitality industry, including growth of the brands, creation of chain-scale segments and limited-service hotels, and influencing friendlier franchising terms.

Proposed changes to federal immigration law over the past two years would dramatically shake up the current visa system responsible for the growth of the hotelier community.

Overall, immigrant entrepreneurs own about 25 percent of small businesses in America and they create about 30 percent of the jobs, according to a 2012 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute.

It is safe to say that changes in immigration law would ultimately impact small-business and job creation in America.

Here are just a few of the actions proposed by Congress and supported by President Trump.

  • Eliminate the diversity visa program, also known as the green-card lottery;
  • Replace the employment-based system with a skills-based qualification; and
  • Eliminate the green card program for certain categories of family-sponsored immigrants.

Currently, foreign-born U.S. citizens and permanent residents can sponsor other family members for citizenship, such as adult children, parents, siblings and fiancés.

Recent proposals would retain only spouses and unmarried minor children.

While Congress has not acted on the proposals, the Trump administration has effectively slowed the processing of green-card petitions for relatives of immigrants already in the U.S., reports the Migrant Policy Institute.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processed 54 percent of immediate-relative petitions in fiscal 2017, a drop from 67 percent in 2016.

Pew Research said about two thirds of new green cards granted each year go to immigrants sponsored by family members who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

In December 2017, the White House launched a public campaign to end family migration.

A post on the White House website refers to the trend as chain migration and said it de-skills the labor force, puts downward pressure on wages, and increases the deficit. The White House said family migration also undermines national security by failing to establish merit-based criteria for evaluating entrants into the U.S.

The public awareness program was meant to push Congress to act on immigration reform.

Three congressional proposals that would significantly reduce the number of permanent immigrants coming to the U.S. to join family members and to start businesses were proposed in 2017 but failed to gain any traction.

READ: Migrant Policy Institute’s report on Indian Immigrants in the U.S.

How Big Is It?

To get a handle on the size of the issue, here are some numbers on legal immigration:

National Immigration Forum reports family migration is the main way foreign-born people enter America. Family visas account for about 65 percent of legal immigration each year.

Pew Research reports America’s immigrant population has swelled to 44.5 million since 1965, when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened up the U.S. to immigrants from Asia, among other countries.

In that time, more than half of the total U.S. population growth has been because of new immigrants, their children and grandchildren.

Immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up one quarter of the U.S. population.

Where Are They Coming From?

Pew Research notes 11.6 million U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico. They make up the largest portion of the immigrant population.

The next most popular birth nation is China with 2.7 million immigrants.

A close third is India, with 2.4 million.

Of immigrants from India, nearly half are naturalized citizens and more than a third have arrived in the past 10 years, reports the Migrant Policy Institute.

Not all Indian immigrants in the U.S. are here legally, notes MPI. More than a quarter are unauthorized. About 15,000 Indian youth are eligible for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.

Asian American Activist

Immigrants or children of immigrants comprise 13 percent of the 116th Congress. And many more are politically active.

One such activist is Suraj Patel of New York City. Suraj is the second of four children born to Bharat and Nayna Patel of Indianapolis. Bharat and other family members founded Sun Development and Management Co., which has about 30 hotels opened or under development throughout the U.S.

Last June, Suraj, a 35-year-old Democrat, ran in the primary election in New York’s 12th House District but was unsuccessful in his bid to upset Democratic incumbent Carolyn Maloney. Suraj said he is weighing whether to give it another try in 2020.

A former member of President Obama’s campaign staff, Suraj teaches business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He also serves as a consultant for community organizations that address criminal justice and poverty.

One of his campaign planks was immigration reform. An avid Twitter poster, Suraj used the medium to tell his family immigration story, which began when his great uncle from Gujarat, India, came to America. His parents were among the family members who followed. They settled in southern Mississippi, where Suraj was born in 1963.

“My story is very synonymous with lots of first-generation Americans in this country, especially Indian Americans who immigrated to this country in waves but came in ’60s and ’70s. My great uncle was the first member of my family in the ’60s. He came into New York City and settled in New Jersey doing all the jobs many Indian immigrants were doing – security guards, shop keepers, gas station attendants.”

Suraj Patel’s grandmother’s first business. (Submitted photo)

Most Gujarati immigrants invested in motels. Suraj’s great uncle did the same thing, calling his brothers over from their home state.

When Suraj was 5 years old, his parents acquired a Days Inn in Indiana.

The purchase was owner financed and the family invested much of their profits into the family business to avoid being burdened by debt.

This is a common practice among Indian immigrant entrepreneurs. In addition to financing their own livelihoods, they also house, care for and provide job training and education for family members who join them from overseas.

“Family unification immigration is the one thing that sets America apart from almost any other country in the world,” Suraj said. “We don’t just view people coming to the United States as labor, as a factor of production. We view them as integral parts of this country’s fabric. Bringing entire families over ensures that they become part of America’s story.”

The term chain migration used by the White House is considered derogatory to those who came to the U.S. through family sponsorship, said Suraj and others opposed to current legislative proposals and political positions on immigration.

“When you describe a group of humans who are related to one another … as a chain, it elicits thoughts of shackles. It’s dehumanizing,” he said.

‘Build a Bigger Table’

True to his hotel-based upbringing, Suraj said the issues surrounding immigration can only be satisfactorily addressed when America’s leaders adopt a spirit of hospitality.

It’s the same attitude and mindfulness he saw his parents demonstrate at home and in business.

“I lived it, I grew up in it. There probably wasn’t more than 20 days in a 365-day year when my family did not host guests for people just arriving from India who were traveling through, have a home-cooked meal and going on their way. We are by nature and by our DNA hospitality people and there is something valuable in that.”

Suraj cites one of his favorite business books, “Setting the Table,” by restaurateur Danny Meyer. “It’s about hospitality, which fundamentally is a unique lens through which you look at your business about how you treat everyone from your employees to your creditors to your partners to your customers. It should apply across the board this spirit of oneness and togetherness in the way we run our business and in the way we run our government.

“We as family, when people come to our door, we don’t erect walls, we build a bigger table. That is the quintessential hospitality quote, and if that isn’t a sentiment that isn’t desperately needed in government right now, I don’t know what is.”

Suraj said one group that can significantly alter government leaders’ view of immigration is AAHOA. The largest hotel owners group in the world lobbies on Capitol Hill almost every day and holds two legislative summits a year when members meet with senators and house representatives to discuss issues that impact their ability to do business.

AAHOA spokesman Peter Clerkin said in an email the association is focused these days on issues such as joint employer definition and tax reform.

Yet, on its website AAHOA notes the genesis of the association 30 years ago:

“Asians have a rich tradition of entrepreneurship, self-improvement, and family values. After India’s independence in 1947, many of that country’s young people immigrated to the United States to pursue their education and ‘the American Dream.’

“Many of these new immigrants arrived in America with backgrounds as entrepreneurs and business owners. During the 1970s, Indian Americans saw tremendous opportunities for prosperity in the hospitality industry, and many began to save their money in order to purchase hotels. Word quickly spread throughout the community about the potential of the hotel industry as a niche market, and the Indian American influence in hospitality began.”


READ: Download the Migrant Policy Institute’s report, S. Immigration Policy Under Trump

Danger of Demonization

Suraj agrees with the Migrant Policy Institute when last year it said President Trump is leading “a fundamental shift in thinking and policy about the direction of immigration.”

The activist is sounding an alarm on the demonization of immigrants, which he believes is a dangerous trend facing the country.

“When I said we are at an inflection point, I really mean it. Immigration and the way we treat immigrants is fundamental to the core and character of our country. It’s the one thing that makes us unique. We are one of the only countries who allow families to come here and become part of the American fabric.”

While President Trump is mainly focused on solving the issue of illegal immigration, Suraj said the tenor of the president’s campaign to build a wall, his travel ban and other actions spoils America’s image as a welcoming haven to the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to be free.

The threat, Suraj said, is the fundamental recasting of the definition of immigration. Undocumented immigrants as well as legal immigrations are tied together, he said. “There is a group of folks living here who are already part and parcel of the American fabric. More than 5 percent of the U.S. workforce is undocumented. It is unrealistic to deport them because it would put the economy in shambles and it would be immoral.”

Pew Research reports the U.S. has more immigrants than any other nation and accounts for 18 percent of the world’s migrants.

The report counted both those with legal status and those who are here illegally.

The 10.7 million undocumented residents in America comprise about one quarter of the immigrant population. The number has decreased over the past 10 years, falling to levels charted in 2004.

A recent survey by Pew Research shows strong public support for legal immigrants in America but those surveyed are almost evenly divided over the deportation of those who enter the country illegally.

Suraj argues undocumented immigrants and those who follow legal pathways to citizenship are tethered together. What effects one group will impact the other.

Changing immigration employment law to a merit-based system and narrowing the path for family migration will create a bifurcated society and reduce people to mere numbers, Suraj said. The next step is the dehumanization and devaluation of immigrants and creating an aura of fear around them.

To combat that, Suraj has campaigned for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

Suraj Patel wrote on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower in New York City on June 25, 2018, the day before the state’s primary election and just hours after a bill was proposed in Congress for the abolishment of ICE. (Submitted photo)

Formation of ICE

ICE is a relative youngster of federal agencies.

It was created 16 years ago by the Department of Homeland Security, which was formed when the George W. Bush administration reorganized government after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Previous to that, immigration was enforced by the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was under the Department of Justice, and the former U.S. Customs Service, which was under the Treasury Department.

INS typically targeted large illegal actors like businesses and took them to court. But ICE has moved immigration from a law enforcement purview to a homeland security role, which uses little adjudication to decide on an immigrant’s status and allows agents to often act with impunity.

The formation of ICE gave presidents power they never had before. President Obama ordered ICE to deport undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes. In fiscal 2012, ICE removed an average 34,000 immigrants a month, the most of any president.

President Trump took that order up a notch, instructing ICE to target anyone in the U.S. illegally. But deportations averaged about 20,000 a month in Trump’s first year as president.

Also in 2012, Obama through executive order created DACA, granting temporary amnesty to immigrants who were illegally brought to America when they were children.

In 2017, Trump ordered a winding down of DACA and challenged Congress to pass legislation to deal with the issue. Congress has seen several proposals that would create a legal path to immigration for up to 3.6 million people covered by DACA. None has passed.

The latest proposal is the Dream and Promise Act of 2019 or House bill 6, introduced in the House on March 12. It was referred to both the House judiciary committee and the education and labor committee.

The bill is the first real legislation dealing with immigration that has come before Congress in two years.

In February 2017, Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Purdue of Georgia introduced a measure called the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act or the RAISE Act.

In August 2017, the Senators introduced revised legislation, and the president shared his support of the second iteration of RAISE.

It would amend the current Immigration and Nationality Act, the 54-year-old bipartisan-supported law that established the current family-immigration system.

The August proposal and its predecessor bill went to the Senate floor and was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they have remained since, effectively killing them.

A house bill mirroring the RAISE proposal also languished in committee since it was introduced in September 2017. That measure includes an amendment that would establish a new visa program for immigrants who plan to create new businesses in the U.S.

Those opposed to such regulatory changes and legislative proposals as well as ideas emanating from the president and his administration say the actions devalue the contribution immigrants have made to the American economy over the past half century.

“Part of the problem is it’s a hot potato issue,” Suraj said. Members of Congress, particularly those facing re-election in 2020 “are worried more about their seats than they are the betterment of this country.”

“We got ourselves into a situation where neither side can get to yes on this issue, and no one wants to put aside their political career goals to actually solve this problem.”

WATCH: Suraj Patel on being a first-gen immigrant.

Workforce Issue

Despite the views of some politicians and those in the Trump administration, most residents in countries with the most migrants believe immigrants strengthen their nations.

That is according to Pew Research’s Spring Global Attitudes Survey, which released its findings this month.

Immigrants have helped build the U.S. economy. They also take low-wage or entry-level jobs that employers say are typically hard to fill.

If the potential labor force grows, it will be because of immigration, says Pew Research.

In 2015, there were 173 million immigrants between the prime working ages of 25 to 64. That population segment is projected to grow to 183 million by 2035. Without future immigration, the number of Americans of prime working age would decline to 166 million.

Chris Mumford of Aethos Consulting Group said the decrease in immigrants authorized to work in the U.S. as well as other countries is a threat to the global economy.

The dearth of available workers is a problem hotels face every day.

Mumford spoke from his London office, where he has a comprehensive global view of how immigration issues impact workforce demand.

“I think it’s an obvious concern just the general lack of labor for the hospitality sector and if you start to close off the route to, be frank, cheap labor and there is no obvious source where replacement labor is to come from there is an issue.”

Mumford said in the U.K. and other countries, “the hospitality industry is lobbying their respective governments to have access to manpower.” In the U.K. where Parliament is debating how to manage Brexit, immigrants with work visas “are starting to go back home because they are not welcomed and they are not making the money they were used to making.”

Studies also show immigrants do not take jobs from native-born residents, they actually create opportunities.

This has been the track record of Asian American hotel owners in the U.S. Suraj urges people to take a longer view of the positive impact of immigration.

Most migrants view entry-level or low-wage jobs as temporary, an opportunity to lay the foundation of a business or career. “The reality is life does not exist in a snapshot of time,” Suraj said. “You are looking at five-, 10- and 20-year horizons. So many businesses that employ large swaths of Americans have been started by folks who started in that way. My family is a good example of that.”

Much of the U.S. government’s action threatens to “deplete the entrepreneurial capital of this country by shutting off folks who by nature are entrepreneurial,” he said. “These are people who are willing to take the risk of leaving everything they know and move a hemisphere and a half away to a strange place to learn and work and to make it home.

“There is something really valuable about that resilience. And that’s something we are undercounting value for.”

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