In Philadelphia, a new worker-owned collective, Masa Cooperativa, uses indigenous corn to create authentic corn masa to sell to local restaurants. But this collective is not unique; it is just one example of a new trend. Across the United States, undocumented entrepreneurs are increasingly creating their own businesses where they can earn a living despite lacking legal work status.
Work Authorization in the United States
For many of the nearly 11 million undocumented individuals living in the United States, a significant barrier to economic prosperity is the requirement for work authorization. Unlike U.S. citizens, born or naturalized, who are always authorized to work here, foreign citizens must rely on their immigration status for the ability to work. For that reason, those without legal status cannot obtain work authorization and so are generally unable to work legally.
With a significant labor shortage affecting the United States and no discernable immigration reform laws in sight, undocumented individuals are turning to business ownership in order to creatively pursue their passions without violating immigration laws.
Across the United States, the trend of undocumented entrepreneurs is growing. According to a bipartisan nonprofit group, New American Economy, there are over 815,000 undocumented entrepreneurs in the United States– a notable increase from 770,000 in 2016. This growth can be attributed to the lack of legal employment options for the undocumented population because, under current law, there is nothing to prevent undocumented individuals from owning a business in the United States.
Iliana G. Perez, Director of Research and Entrepreneurship at Immigrants Rising, noted this trend shows little sign of slowing down: “According to NAE, there are now 1.5 million Latino-immigrant business owners in the U.S., a net increase of 100,000 in the last two years. Today they employ more than a million people. This means that immigrants — many of whom are undocumented — now write paychecks for an increasing number of Americans.” In fact, in 2019, immigrant-owned businesses employed 8 million Americans.
In his recent article, Matthew Korfhage said a new worker-owned collective called Masa Cooperativa is providing new hope to undocumented workers in the Philadelphia region. Using traditional indigenous methods to make corn masa for tortillas, undocumented workers who jointly own the business will be able to sell corn masa to local restaurants and at special events as soon as next year.
Worker-owned cooperatives have become an increasingly popular way for immigrants to take ownership of their work and avoid the often-exploitative labor demands for undocumented individuals. Unlike traditional business models, worker-owned collectives are, as the term implies, owned and managed by their workers, typically affording each worker one vote for any management decisions.