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A First-Generation American Entrepreneur Reflects on the Immigration Proposal That Would Have Barred His Parents

Mom and Dad had no skills and didn't speak English but achieved the American dream by working tirelessly. Pending legislation would bar people like them now.

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Recently, President Trump said he supports a Senate bill to curb legal immigration to the United States. The legislation, a revised version of an immigration-reform bill introduced in February, would give priority to high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants.

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For me, the news hit especially close to home.

My parents landed in the United States in the early 1960s. Like hundreds of thousands from Cuba, they did so to escape the heavy-handed regime of Fidel Castro. With little money and no formal education but a few life-learned skills under their belts, they survived in a strange land where they did not speak the language and knew only a few family members.

Related: 4 Reasons Why Immigrants Are Essential for Entrepreneurship

They moved to an area of New Jersey where other Cubans had fled, and they banded together with other Spanish speakers. Eventually, they met, married and raised four children on modest means and a backbreaking work ethic.

While Dad spoke broken English at best when he arrived. Mom spoke none. As a young boy I remember people giving her the stink eye or poor customer service while she tried her hardest to convey what she needed. Some told her, "If you’re in America, speak English.”

These comments sometimes made her cry but never broke her spirit. Her inability to speak English was in no way a reflection of her character or work ethic, nor was it a political statement or a lack of love for her new country. Mom believed strongly in the American dream and was determined to see it come to fruition for herself and her family.

Early on, Mom was a cleaning lady. She recently retired as a senior manager overseeing major projects and a staff of more than 70. Today, I’m proud to say that she is a competent English speaker. Though sometimes when she tries to pronounce certain words we kids get a good laugh, Mom faced her challenges head on and carved out a decent life for her family.

Related: The Immigrant Entrepreneurs Behind Major American Companies (Infographic)

Mom's bilingual skills came in handy as she climbed the career ladder to eventually oversee a crew of cleaners. They, like her, came to this country with “low skills” and unable to speak the dominant language.

My parents are the immigrants many of Trump’s supporters would like to ban from entering this country. Mom and Dad may have been stopped at the border if this bill been law when they fled Cuba for freedom. 

Because of my parent’s resilience and perseverance, their American children now have a much easier life.

I was able to attend Parsons, one of the country’s foremost design schools. From there, I had a two-decade career as a designer for some of the world’s most successful luxury brands. A few years ago, after a trip my partner and I took around the world, I launched Bixbee, a backpack and accessories company for kids.

Because of my own family’s struggles and their belief that an education helps pave the way to big dreams, it was important to create a company that gives back. Since our launch, we’ve donated tens of thousands of backpacks to kids in the United States and around the world. Providing kids in need with an opportunity for an education is my way of helping them achieve their own dreams and part of the American dream my parents taught us to believe in.

Related: Here's How to Fix the H-1B Visa Program to Drive Startup Growth

Mine is one story of millions. America was, after all, built on the trials and triumphs of immigrations, many of whom were unable to speak English and came to this country with little more than an unshakable work ethic. It’s in our national DNA and has made this country so great from its beginning.

I’ll be the first to admit that our current system is far from perfect. But in the course of trying to fix it, let’s not forget that most who cross our borders are more than just workers. They are liberty-loving risk takers who, like my parents, came here to create a better life for themselves and their families.

As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”

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