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Local family business highlights growth of immigrant entrepreneurs
La Mejor De Michoacan has 4 locations in area
A La Mejor de Michoacan employee fills a tub with freshly made mango ice cream Friday afternoon at the 405 Atlanta Highway location.

Edgar Medrano, 23, shakes his head in amazement when thinking about the history of his family’s business.

Born in California to Mexican immigrants, Medrano came to Hall County with his parents and siblings about a dozen years ago to open an ice cream parlor with novel dessert twists and flavors.

Cheaper living, operating and permitting costs made the move easier for the family to digest.

“They decided they liked it,” Medrano said of his parents’ decision to relocate and start their own business La Mejor de Michoacan.

But the hard work had only begun.

Medrano said he remembers when his father and mother would leave for work early in the morning, waking him for school before they left, only to return home at night long after he had fallen asleep.

For a long time, Medrano said, he saw his father only in those brief moments before dawn cracked the dark morning sky.

When the economy is in the dumps, immigrants have long turned to their ingenuity and work ethic to get by.

For example, when the bubble burst on the housing market, many immigrants working in construction and trade fell back on other skills and become their own boss.

A new report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit based in Kansas City, Mo., that promotes entrepreneurship and youth education, highlights just how commonplace families like the Medranos have become over the last two decades.  

Immigrants make up about 28 percent of all entrepreneurs in the United States today, according to the report, rising from slightly more than 13 percent in 1996.

Immigrant business owners work in many industries with varying skill levels, from the technological world of Silicon Valley to mom-and-pop grocers, salons or automotive repair shops along Atlanta Highway in Gainesville.

The number of foreign-born entrepreneurs in the United States jumped sharply during the height of the recession between 2007 and 2009, and then leveled off slightly before picking up again in the last year, according to the report. And immigrants are starting small businesses at about twice the rate of nonimmigrant individuals.

Though immigrants are only 13 percent of the nation’s population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, foreign-born entrepreneurs account for about 30 percent of the share of small business growth since the mid-1990s.

The share of new Latino business owners is also growing, and is evident in cities like Gainesville, where about 42 percent of the population is Latino or Hispanic.

Furthermore, according to Census figures and the Immigration Policy Center, the research arm of the nonprofit American Immigration Council, immigrants made up less than 15 percent of the population in the Atlanta metropolitan area in 2010 while foreign-born individuals owned more than 20 percent of all businesses there.

Business ownership growth rates among native-born persons have remained flat or slightly declined over last 20 years, according to the Kauffman report.

Immigrants from Mexico account for the biggest portion of foreign-born entrepreneurs, followed by individuals from India and other countries in Asia.

Medrano said his father learned the family business as a teenager in Mexico, making homespun ice cream as a way to support his mother.

After years of odd jobs in California, such as installing windows, Medrano said his father realized opening an ice cream parlor could be a way to both indulge a passion and support a family.

The family now owns four stores, including one in Norcross.

But perhaps the final straw pushing Medrano’s father to start his own business was the same motivation many entrepreneurs likely feel.

“He was just tired of working for other people,” Medrano said of his father.