On the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans this year, a record 10 percent are immigrants.
While some social observers lament that the "American dream" is dead, the number of immigrants gracing the list suggests that it may still be possible to start with next to nothing and build something extraordinary in a single generation. The vast majority of those listed were self-made billionaires, starting with an idea rather than a large inheritance, and creating an innovative product or company that landed them among the nation's richest people.
“There is no other country on the planet where you or your parents can show up and with a lot of hard work create huge wealth within one generation,” businessman Raul Fernandez, whose parents immigrated from Cuba and from Ecuador, told The Washington Post. While he’s not on the Forbes list, Mr. Fernandez has a self-made fortune based in technology. “It’s a unique and truly American ecosystem that sets the stage for hungry, scrappy immigrants and entrepreneurs to create great companies and enormous wealth.”
Forbes's list included 42 immigrants from 21 countries with a combined net worth of almost $250 billion. A third of those had more money than Donald Trump, who is valued at $3.7 billion, and 40 of the 42 had made, not inherited, their fortunes.
Big names on the list included Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who was born in South Africa and is now worth $11.6 billion, and Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp who hails from Ukraine and has a net worth of $8.8 billion. The richest immigrant is Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google born in Russia, whose net worth is 10 times that of Mr. Trump at $37.5 billion.
Overall, the 400 billionaires on the list have a combined net worth of $2.4 trillion, the highest dollar figure of any annual Forbes list to date. The smallest net worth on the list is $1.7 billion, the same as in 2015.
Entrepreneurial success among immigrants isn’t a new phenomenon, but it hasn’t entirely been explained, either. A report published this month from The Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit focused on entrepreneurship and education, found that immigrants are overrepresented in entrepreneurship fields, but failed to explain why. Some factors that likely contribute to the high rate of immigrant business success are their readiness to take risks, their perspectives informed by another culture, and their connections to international resources or networks.
But despite these high-profile success stories, the Kauffman researchers found that most immigrants still face substantial roadblocks to achieving success. They argued that better policies could boost the success rate of immigrants, who play a vital role in creating businesses and jobs that benefit the country as a whole.
“Immigrant entrepreneurs want to come to the United States; policy ought to facilitate this entrepreneurial growth that represents our past and future,” the report concluded.