[Guest Covid19 series post] Entrepreneurship Pathways, Regardless of Immigration Status


There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The lack of a comprehensive immigration reform bill has forced millions of undocumented individuals to live and work “in the shadows,” without work authorization, and to pursue work in the lowest wage sectors of the economy. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals were able to work from home, but millions of immigrants did not have the luxury to do this. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) estimates that nearly 3 out of 4 (an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants) are doing jobs deemed “essential” to the nation’s infrastructure. Moreover, many other undocumented immigrants have faced massive lay-offs or wage reductions in food and other service sectors, are disproportionately lacking in health care coverage, and have been deemed ineligible for the federal stimulus funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). 

As it turns out, entrepreneurship is an alternative to employment and a way for people to earn a living when employment barriers exist. The federal government doesn’t require undocumented immigrants to have work authorization or a social security number in order to be an independent contractor or start a business. Anyone, regardless of immigration status, can get an Individual Tax ID Number (ITIN) to open bank accounts, build credit, incorporate as a business, provide employee benefits and pay taxes. This is particularly important in current times when so many people are unemployed or underemployed, as a result of COVID-19. 

I myself was an undocumented independent contractor before I obtained my work authorization through DACA in 2013. I graduated from college in 2009 with a degree in math and became extremely frustrated with the fact that I could not get hired as an employee due to my immigration status. However, I quickly learned that independent contracting did not require work authorization or a SSN. I started out doing consulting in social media marketing and promotions. My clients at the time were small local businesses that wanted to establish their presence on social media. I then came across marketing and promotion companies that contracted with individuals to do marketing and promotions for other larger companies. After I enrolled in a PhD program (before DACA) I began to learn more about professional consulting in research and evaluation. I was introduced to the world of evaluation through my advisor and realized that my research skills (survey design, data analysis, data visualization, etc.) could be turned into paid consulting opportunities in this field. To date, I continue to engage in the occasional professional consulting opportunity on top of my full-time employment to augment my income. In the future, I look forward to starting my own consulting firm in research and evaluation. 

Immigrants, in fact, have long been at the forefront of new business growth in the U.S., playing an important role in the U.S. economy and yet, go virtually unrecognized. According to the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration policy group, there were 808,199 undocumented entrepreneurs (7.6%, out of 10.6M undocumented people) in the U.S. in 2018, contributing $15.2 billion in business income. In more than 20 states, immigrant entrepreneurs boast higher rates of entrepreneurship than either legal permanent residents or citizens of the same age group. Undocumented immigrants engage in a wide variety of entrepreneurship activities in all sectors of the economy: food (restaurant owners, food truck owners), professional services (lawyers, accountants, consultants, real estate), film and media (photographers, videographers, film producers), art and literature (muralists, poets, writers) technology (computer programmers, coders), personal care (hairdressers), and many others. 

Unfortunately, many undocumented immigrants may not know that entrepreneurship is an option to be able to earn a living. This is why for over ten years, Immigrants Rising, a non-profit organization based out of San Francisco, has been providing resources, knowledge and financial support for immigrant freelancers and entrepreneurs at any stage of their journey. Immigrants Rising has created an extensive library of resources on a wide range of topics related to entrepreneurship, such as the ITIN, taxes, choosing a business structure, creating a business plan, accessing financial capital, among more. A few months ago, we released the UndocuHustle Learning Hub, an online tool that includes lessons and interactive worksheets that can help anyone, regardless of status, learn the ins-and-outs of starting a company, working as an independent contractor, and how to access capital and financing to get started. Moreover, the Learning Hub features diverse stories of undocumented entrepreneurs across the nation that can serve as inspiration for new entrepreneurs.

Specifically related to COVID-19, Immigrants Rising has created a running list of resources to help undocumented individuals and allies navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Item 6 on the list provides specific information and resources for businesses and freelancers. Immigrants Rising has also put together a list of online contracting opportunities (that often do not require work authorization) in high demand during the COVID19 crisis. 

In addition to the resources and support provided by Immigrants Rising, there are many organizations across the country that provide support to entrepreneurs, regardless of immigration status. For example, the Small Business Majority manages Venturize, a free online resource hub for small business owners who need help accessing tools and resources to start or grow their businesses. The online directory allows people to do a search by zip code to identify local service providers that can assist with training, access to financial capital, legal support, marketing and research, etc. 

Becoming an entrepreneur is not easy, but it is possible for anyone, regardless of immigration status, field of study, and educational level to get started. To get started with entrepreneurship, I recommend taking the following steps:

  1. Engage in a reflective exercise to take inventory of your skills, abilities, experience and hobbies. This will help you understand what you have to work with that could be turned into paid opportunities.
  2. Do a landscape analysis to learn about paid opportunities that match your skillset. This could involve doing a search online (“consulting for XX majors”, identifying marketplaces for work (i.e. Upwork, Craigslist, Taskrabbit), and conducting informal interviews with people who have experience doing consulting/business. Identify any additional skills, certifications, training or licensing that may be required in your line of work.
  3. Conduct a market analysis to figure out who your clients could be, understand the demand for your services/product and the going rate for your services/product. This could be done by doing some research on marketplaces, administering a quick survey on social media or asking friends/family what they think about your idea. 
  4. Once you have an idea of the type of work you would like to do as an entrepreneur, you will need to start thinking about marketing to get clients. You can start by creating business cards, building a website, or simply announcing your services/product on social media. You may also consider reaching out to friends, family or your professional connections to help you spread the word.  
  5. Lastly, it is important to understand all other aspects of entrepreneurship that pertain to your specific industry or line of work. These include business permits, licenses, certification, taxes, budgets, access to financial capital, etc. The UndocuHustle Learning Hub can help with this!  

I can personally attest to the opportunities that can open up through entrepreneurship and I encourage you to take it a step a time and not be afraid to get started. During these difficult times it is even more important than ever to identify multiple options to generate income and reimagine the possibilities in a new, virtual world. You are also not alone in this journey. Organizations, such as Immigrants Rising, as well as many others exist to provide support along the way. To stay connected and get access to Immigrants Rising’s latest news and resources, sign up for our entrepreneurship listserve.

Iliana serves as the Director of Research & Entrepreneurship at Immigrants Rising, where she oversees the research and evaluation agenda of the organization, as well as the entrepreneurship programming. Iliana also lectures in the Labor Studies Department at UCLA and in the Allies of Dreamers Certificate Program at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Educational Studies. liana immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico alongside her mother, father and younger brother to the U.S. at the age of eight. She grew up in the California Central Valley and navigated the educational system as an undocumented student for 18 years until she became a DACA recipient in 2013. Iliana holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Fresno State, a M.A. in Economics from Claremont Graduate University and a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Evaluation and Reform, also from Claremont Graduate University. 


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