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Good migrations! Immigrants own a majority of Brooklyn’s independent businesses

for The Brooklyn Paper
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You don’t need the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to tell you about the joys of a good kimchi stew or a plate of curry goat, but a new report has found that immigrant-owned businesses just may be the beating heart of the borough’s economy, too.

Immigrants take up the lion’s share of independent industries borough-wide, particularly in the restaurants, retail shops and grocery stores that give Brooklyn its distinctive flavors, according to the chamber’s new Brooklyn Labor Market Review. They’re also bulldozing their way into the construction industry, and make up the majority of private practices, the chamber found.

According to the study, immigrants own a whopping 87 percent of incorporated mom-and-pop groceries and make up 69 percent of all self-employed restaurateurs and food service providers. For private practices, that number’s at 77 percent, and in construction it’s 58 percent, with 2,200 owners — the most in any category.

All told, immigrants comprise 58 percent of all self-employed, incorporated retailers in the borough (in other words, franchised retailers like Macy’s don’t apply).

The data on physicians’ offices particularly shattered expectations — and stereotypes — said Chamber President Carl Hum.

“Physicians’ offices break the trend that we have traditionally seen of immigrant businesses being primarily in the food industries and transportation industries,” said Hum. “It breaks the mold of the stereotypical immigrant being less skilled.”

You don’t need an Excel spreadsheet to realize the resilience of immigrant entrepreneurs or their strong ties to their adoptive home.

“I count on my community — my customers, my employees,” said Joyce Kiehm, the owner of Downtown wig store Hair Heaven. Her clientele has trailed her for decades — even though she’s had to move and rebuild her business three times since arriving from South Korea in 1979. “Wherever I go, they’re ready to follow me, to help me,” she said.

Contractor — and Guyanese native — Hermant Singh Dwhaj knows all about the cycle of reinvention.

“For 13 years, I’ve never made a business card,” said Dwhaj, who has run his construction company out of his Cobble Hill home since returning from a seven-year selective logging gig in the Amazon Jungle in 1999.

Because this is the first report of its kind to analyze specifically Brooklyn, there’s no way to tell if the role of immigrant business owners is at a high point, Hum said. Still, the finding was a revelation.

“Immigrants drive a huge part of the economy, as opposed to what our friends out West would have you believe — that immigrants are a drain,” said Hum.

Areas where immigrants had the smallest representation were the performing arts (21 percent) and legal services (27 percent).

At least one immigrant business owner is skeptical of the report’s scope.

“When you really get down to it, to say that 70 percent [of Brooklyn physicians] are immigrants is bogus,” said ophthalmologist John Babb, who came to Brooklyn with his family from Barbados in the late ’50s. “Where do you define ‘American’?”

Babb has reason to question it: while he operated his 26-year-old Brooklyn Heights private practice, he served with distinction in the Persian Gulf War, attaining the rank of Major over a 12-year career in the U. S. Army that ended in 2002.

But Chamber spokesperson Leticia Theodore-Greene touted the political relevance of the study.

“Immigration is clearly a big legislative focus right now,” she said. “The hope is that Brooklyn stakeholders use the [report’s] information to continue supporting immigrant businesses and have a deeper understanding of our business community.”

Updated 5:25 pm, July 9, 2018
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