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Immigrants a vital part of the Mass. economy

(From left to right) Joel Joseph, Rosemary Agbede, and Andre Kurs.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

(From left to right) Joel Joseph, Rosemary Agbede, and Andre Kurs.

Immigration remains one of the most contentious debates. The US Senate in June passed a sweeping immigration bill, but it has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

The outcome of this standoff has implications for Massachusetts, where immigration plays a vital role in the economy. Immigration accounts for much of the state’s population growth; foreign-born residents make up 15 percent of the state’s population, compared to 13 percent nationally.

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Immigrants have become increasingly important to the workforces of Massachusetts industries, from technology to tourism. They are expected to play even larger roles in coming years as the aging, native-born population leaves the labor force.

Immigrants are likely to be poorer, receiving public assistance at a slightly higher rate than native-born residents, according to the The Immigrant Learning Center Inc. in Malden. But immigrants also show higher rates of state income tax payments, workforce participation, and entrepreneurship. Here are three of their stories.

Joel Joseph

HAITI, LOW-WAGE WORKER

Joel Joseph is still finding his way in the United States.

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In the nine months since he moved to Malden from Haiti, Joseph has found a job at McDonald’s, enrolled in English classes, and begun to plan his future. He also is learning to embrace winter, which he never experienced in his native country.

“Wow, it’s crazy,” he said of his first snowy season.

Joel Joseph made a good living in Haiti doing computer repair work. He said he hopes to eventually attend Boston University to study computer programming.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Joel Joseph made a good living in Haiti doing computer repair work. He said he hopes to eventually attend Boston University to study computer programming.

Like many of the immigrants who arrived in Massachusetts last year — more than 31,000 immigrated legally, according to the Department of Homeland Security — Joseph is in the early stages of building his own American dream, working in a low-wage job, pursuing education, and hoping it will lead to bigger and better opportunities.

At 29, he is among the influx of young, foreign-born residents to Massachusetts that many economists say is needed to bring vitality and energy to an economy still shaking off the effects of the last recession and grappling with an aging workforce.

From 2010 to 2012, Massachusetts’ working age population — residents from age 18 to 64 — increased just under a half percent per year, with the growth occurring entirely in the immigrant population, according to analysis of census data by demographer Peter Francese of Exeter, N.H. At the same time, the 65-plus population, which will depend on younger workers to finance Social Security and other benefits, grew by an annual 4 percent, he said.

“Immigration is not just important for Massachusetts’ economic growth and workforce growth,” Francese said. “It is absolutely essential.”

For Joseph, as with many immigrants, coming to the United States meant starting over. In his hometown of Petion-Ville, an affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince, Joseph made a good living in computer repair. He also managed a local team that played handball, a cross between soccer and basketball popular in Europe and other parts of the world.

He came to the United States to join his family. His mother has been living here since 2002. In the decade that followed, she brought her children over one by one; Joseph is the last of the five to arrive and was eager to reunite with his family.

When he heard that he would finally be making the journey, Joseph said he was excited for the opportunities he believed America would offer, opportunities unavailable to an average person in Haiti. “In my country, it’s different,” he said. “If you want to learn something, you need a lot of money.”

Establishing himself here has not been without challenges. He spent four months looking for work after his arrival. He applied to every entry-level job he could find — restaurants, markets, convenience stores — but repeatedly heard that he didn’t have enough US work experience.

Eventually, a cousin helped him find a job as a cook at a McDonald’s in Newton. Joseph seized the opportunity, even if it means a commute of more than an hour each way on the Orange Line and a bus.

Such jobs are among the most common ways for new arrivals to enter the workforce; 14.2 percent of employed recent immigrants work in the accommodations and food services sector, according The Immigrant Learning Center Inc. in Malden, a nonprofit that offers English classes to new immigrants.

Joseph works at the hot grill as many as 38 hours a week. With the money he earns, he helps pay the rent on the two-bedroom apartment he shares with five family members, including his mother, brother, niece, and nephew. Two of the other adults work, also at McDonald’s. Joseph contributes to the household budget, buys himself clothes, and sends money to his father in Haiti.

When he is not working, he is preparing for the future. Four mornings per week, he takes classes at the Immigrant Learning Center to improve his English. He plans to continue studying English at Bunker Hill Community College in the fall. When he is more confident in his English, he wants to attend Boston University and learn computer programming.

“I hope to finish my schooling and get a better job,” Joseph said.

When he looks 10 years down the road, he is uncertain where he will end up. He would like to live on his own, and would be happy to stay Malden, where nearly 40 percent of the city’s residents are foreign-born.

He is confident that moving to the United States has given him a much greater chance of improving his life than staying in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest nations. In his new home, his age and financial circumstances are unlikely to hold him back as they would have in his home country, he said.

“Even if you are old or young in this country,” he said, “ if you have a goal, you have an opportunity to reach your goal.”

Rosemary Agbede

NIGERIA, SMALL BUSINESS OWNER

Hair was not Rosemary Agbede’s first love, but it has been her most enduring. Growing up in Benin-City in southern Nigeria, Agbede dreamed of becoming a newscaster, but over the years her focus shifted. She started helping out at a local salon, and her interest grew as she learned more about hair styles and cuts. She started to see something special in the beauty field.

“It’s being able to transform people, making them beautiful or making them happy,” she said. “I can do any hair, and I can make people feel good about themselves.”

Now, nearly three decades later, Agbede, 49, is the owner of the Unique You Salon in Lowell, a longtime fixture of the city’s small business community. Her salon is part of the 18 percent of Massachusetts businesses owned by foreign-born residents. From convenience stores and restaurants to insurance agencies and real estate firms, these businesses generate jobs, strengthen ethnic communities, and help revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

Rosemary Agbede emigrated from Nigeria in 1987 and opened Unique You Salon in Lowell 10 years later.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Rosemary Agbede emigrated from Nigeria in 1987 and opened Unique You Salon in Lowell 10 years later.

In Massachusetts, immigrant-owned businesses generate $2.8 billion in income annually, 14 percent of the state’s total, according to a report from the Partnership for a New America, a bipartisan immigration reform advocacy group. And immigrants are twice as likely as native-born residents to start a business, said Denzil Mohammed, assistant director of the Public Education Institute at The Immigrant Learning Center Inc. in Malden.

“The act of immigrating itself is entrepreneurial: You’re leaving everything, taking a risk, trying to make everything better,” Mohammed said. “We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have immigrant entrepreneurs.”

Agbede, who worked as a bookstore clerk in her home country, left Nigeria in 1987, following her boyfriend, who had immigrated the previous year to Dallas. The couple got married and had a baby.

At first, she missed her family terribly. Holidays were especially difficult, she said, and she didn’t have the money to return home for visits. She was a stay-at-home mother; her husband worked in security. “There was a lot of struggle financially,” she said.

After two years in Texas, the family moved to Lowell, drawn by the promise of jobs and opportunity during the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the 1980s. Agbede started looking for work and found a job as a security guard in Bedford.

When she got pregnant a second time, she went on maternity leave, intending to return to the job in a few months. But then, she said, she started imagining a different future — “what I love to do, which is doing hair.”

Three months after Agbede’s son was born, her mother came from Nigeria to help care for the baby. Agbede enrolled at Blaine Beauty School, now part of Empire Beauty Schools.

When she finished her training in 1992, she got a job as a stylist at a salon in a JCPenney in Nashua. She became a US citizen in 1995.

Her devoted clients at the department store convinced her to consider the jump from employee to entrepreneur. She confided in a friend that she was thinking about opening a shop; her friend not only agreed it would be a good idea, but offered her credit card to cover some of the start-up costs.

Agbede dug into her savings, borrowed from friends, and, in 1997, she opened Unique You Salon. “It has been a lot of persistence and hard work just trying to get the business going,” she said.

The month she opened the salon, she discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child. She hired a couple of women, but when she returned from maternity leave, she was horrified at their mismanagement of the business and had to fire them. From that point, she worked with the baby in a bassinet in the corner of the shop; customers often held and fed the baby to help out.

Over the years, there have been other challenges as well. A stylist left, taking clients with her. Agbede has had to move the salon twice, driven by plumbing problems and rising expenses. Her latest move, from a commercial plaza to the center of Lowell, cost her a couple of customers who were skittish about parking downtown.

Despite the challenges, Agbede reckons she has been successful. Today she employs three stylists. Her business is strong, and she has raised four children, largely on her own since separating from her husband seven years ago, she said.

Living in the United States has given her children opportunities they never would have had in Nigeria, Agbede added. Her eldest graduated from Georgetown University four years ago, and her middle two children are studying at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Agbede has returned to school herself, studying accounting at Middlesex Community College to improve her business skills. She wants to launch a charitable program to improve women’s health by offering rewards for joining a gym and maintaining exercise regimens, she said. And one day, she hopes to give back to her native country, starting an orphanage in Nigeria to help care for children less fortunate than her own.

“I still keep striving,” she said.

Andre Kurs

BRAZIL, HIGH-TECH PROFESSIONAL

As Andre Kurs finished high school in his native Brazil, he thought his future lay in France and the prestigious research university Ecole Polytechnique near Paris.

But then he was accepted to Princeton University, and the lure of the Ivy League — and opportunities in America — proved irresistible to the aspiring scientist. After graduating Princeton with a degree in physics, he headed to MIT for his doctoral studies.

Today, Kurs, 31, is cofounder of a Watertown start-up developing a technology to transmit electricity without wires — wireless power. The start-up, WiTricity Corp., has grown from its two founders to about 50 employees in just five years.

“You could see that all the action was really in the United States,” Kurs said of his decision to immigrate here. “If you wanted to make connections to start a new business and be in the middle of the exciting new technology, the US seemed like the place to be.”

Andre Kurs is cofounder of a Watertown start-up developing a technology to transmit electricity without wires — wireless power.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Andre Kurs is cofounder of a Watertown start-up developing a technology to transmit electricity without wires — wireless power.

Kurs is one of thousands of immigrants who play vital roles as scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in Massachusetts’ economy, developing new technologies, launching companies, and providing essential talent to a state that depends on smarts to spur economic growth and jobs. About 18 percent — nearly one in five — of the state’s foreign-born residents hold advanced degrees, according to the census.

“Innovation and entrepreneurship are the cornerstones of the Massachusetts economy and growth in the state,” said Eric Nakajima, assistant secretary for innovation policy in the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “Immigrants have played a critical role, at every step and at every level.”

Kurs was born in Rio de Janeiro and moved to Sao Paulo at the age 7. Years before he was ready to choose a college, his parents — his father is an engineer, his mother an economist — tried to expose him to options beyond Brazil.

He first visited the United States when he was about 10 for a family trip to Disney World in Florida. A few years later, his parents sent him to a classic American summer camp in Vermont.

“My parents wanted me to get a bit of a broader view,” Kurs said.

When it came time to decide on life after high school, Kurs never seriously considered staying in Brazil, where engineering schools just weren’t as good as options abroad, he said. Friends and teachers from his high school urged him to go to France, but the prestige of American schools and atmosphere of innovation in the United States convinced him to choose Princeton.

As an undergraduate, he studied physics, but wasn’t sure what sub-field he wanted to focus his graduate research on. He spent his first couple of months at MIT talking to professors, trying to choose a direction. That’s when he was recruited by Marin Soljacic, a physics professor and Croatian immigrant researching ways to transmit power without wires.

Kurs was fascinated by the research and, within a few months, was seeking ways in the laboratory to make Soljacic’s theories work in the real world. He and his research partners succeeded, laying the groundwork for technologies that will be able to recharge cellphones and electric cars, or power home electronics, without cords and outlets.

As his graduate studies progressed, Kurs began to find academia “a little dull and hierarchical,” he said. So when Soljacic offered the chance to help start a company based on their research, Kurs grabbed the opportunity.

For three years, Kurs was both student and entrepreneur, finishing his thesis while simultaneously building a business. He completed his doctorate in 2011.

WiTricity has received several rounds of venture funding, including an investment from Ray Stata, founder of Analog Devices. WiTricity licenses its technology to partner companies, who can use it to create commercial products.

“We’ll develop the technology,” Kurs explained, “they’ll handle the marketing and integration.”

In addition to being a founder, Kurs is still deeply involved in the science end of the company. He splits his days between promoting WiTricity, developing and improving its wireless power transfer technology, and researching new scientific developments.

Now, Kurs wants very much to stay in the United States and help foster the success of the enterprise he says is “like my baby.” But his future here is uncertain.

Kurs holds an H-1B visa. Two years ago, he applied for a green card, which would permanently grant him the right to live and work in the United States and allow his wife, a Czech national, to work as well. But earlier this year, he learned that his application is being audited and he will have to wait at least another year for a decision as immigration officials take a closer look at his request.

“That makes life a little harder than it has to be,” Kurs said. “There’s a chance it could be rejected.”

The immigration overhaul bill recently passed by the US Senate calls for the creation of a system that would give priority to green card applicants with high educational achievements and significant work experience. The proposal, however, has stalled in the House.

For now, Kurs can only wait — and continue to build his company.

“I work with great people here on an exciting technology that I think could really revolutionize some of the markets we’re trying to enter,” he said. “Of course, as you accomplish your dreams you always want more, which is where I find myself now.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at seshemkus@gmail.com.
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