Florida has felt immigration's impact more than most. The American dream began in Florida with the oldest continuously inhabited city in the nation, and in the past 10 years, 1 out of every 3 new people in our state has been an immigrant. Such high levels of immigration have helped catapult us to the fourth most-populous state in the nation, with nearly 10 percent of the state hailing from a foreign country.
This population boom has been accompanied by sustained economic growth. In the past two years alone, the private sector has created 325,000 new jobs, and only a small number of states beat our economic growth rate in 2012.
The link between our growing economy and immigration is undeniable. That's why, as a Florida businessman for the past 16 years, I support the Gang of Eight's comprehensive immigration reform that would extend the American Dream to millions of immigrants.
The Gang of Eight bill, as passed by the Senate, is precisely the type of reform we need. The key component of the reform is the path to citizenship it offers to all immigrants currently living within our borders. At a time when immigrants - legal or otherwise - are made to feel unwelcome, welcoming them with open arms is a key part of extending the American Dream to others.
For many, including myself, the American dream started in the restaurant industry. In Florida, there are more than 36,000 restaurants, which will produce $33.3 billion in sales this year while providing jobs for over 844,000 Floridians. Immigrants are important for these businesses and to the large sector of the economy they support. Our industry is expected to grow by 14.6 percent over the next decade, which means that over 100,000 new jobs will be available. Giving immigrants the legal means to fill these jobs is as important to us as it is for them.
But citizenship isn't the only reason why immigration reform is necessary. The nation's broken visa system encourages illegal immigration with its walls of bureaucratic red tape. With the proposed reform, the wait for obtaining a visa is cut to a mere 10 days - giving more immigrants the opportunity to come to our shores and join our society.
The Gang of Eight's reform bill also helps businesses like mine uphold the law thanks to an expanded E-Verify system. As it stands, the laws governing employment for immigrants are so convoluted that even knowing the law is either difficult and expensive. With the right change, however, we'll finally have a standardized and universal means of ensuring that we're operating within the bounds of the law.
Combined, these reforms would free thousands of restaurant employees from the fear of deportation while giving restaurant owners a greater ability to do what we love best - serve customers.
The need for reform is more than just economic, however. I also believe that Ronald Reagan was correct when he said, "We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people - our strength - from every country and every corner of the world."
My own story is similar to millions of immigrants. My father grew up in Puerto Rico, and I spent my childhood in South America. I saw firsthand the difficult living and working conditions that caused the most ambitious and entrepreneurial among them to seek to improve their station in life - the same qualities and spirit that make immigrants such important members of society. What I saw in and learned from them inspired me to go into the restaurant industry. Those qualities and spirit are what make our industry so dynamic and vibrant, even in times of economic struggles.
As a result, I can completely empathize with those who desire to come to our country and achieve the American dream. That's why I've been fighting for immigration reform for nearly a decade, why I applaud the Senate for its passage of the Gang of Eight bill, and why I encourage the House of Representatives to bring the bill to the floor and give it the debate it deserves.
When this happens, we'll find that our civic life and our cultural identity are both strengthened through immigration reform, as is our economy. And if we don't give immigrants the same rights to found new families, new businesses, and new lives on our shores, then the American dream suffers for everyone.
Dick Rivera is the chairman and CEO of Rubicon Enterprises, which is based in Florida and operates restaurants, including Friday's and Marlow's Tavern.