Michel Zajur is president and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he founded in 2002. The son of Mexican immigrants, Zajur ran La Siesta restaurant in Richmond for many years before devoting himself full-time to the Chamber in 2009. Along with its advisory role to governors, senators and state politicians, the Chamber offers legal clinics, consults on access to education, and raises funds for scholarships ó among other projects.
At 57, Zajur is married and has three children ages 20, 22 and 25. With the presidential elections a year away, and primary season in full swing, we met him at the Chamberís offices off Midlothian Turnpike and asked him some questions about where he sees the issues.
How did you start the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?
I started it right out of the restaurant (La Siesta). I was perfectly happy doing the restaurant business, but a lot of individuals would come to the restaurant for help. So I thought we ought to start something to help these individuals to start a business, find housing, find jobs and so forth. Weíre a statewide organization ó we have another office in Northern Virginia. We work with the governorís office, all the senators. We are the go-to place for the Hispanic community. The work we do and the reach we have ó thereís no other organization in the state of Virginia that has the reach or the influence the Chamber has.
The demographics show that Hispanics are increasing nationwide and certainly in the Richmond area. The growth that has taken place is phenomenal. When I started the chamber, the census figure for Hispanics in the Richmond area wasnít even 1 percent. Now itís around 8 percent ó the growth rate is very high. In 2009 ... Virginia ranked No. 9 for Hispanic businesses; the national growth rate for them was three times higher (than other businesses). And in Virginia, that rate was 20 percent higher than that! ...
You want all the community to prosper. And when Hispanic businesses succeed, it makes a difference. Hispanics buy homes. When we started our restaurant, youíd look on Jefferson Davis Highway and there were no Hispanics. Now there are signs everywhere. Theyíve brought development to buildings that were boarded up, theyíve brought economic development to certain areas of the city that had none. Thatís really good for this city, for this community, to have that growth. The Hispanic community is a young community. Theyíre providing a needed workforce for a lot of industries that are looking for a good work ethic and a lot of talent.
What sorts of industries and businesses?
A lot of it is financial services, hospitality, construction ó but theyíre in all industries.
Thereís a lot of discussion about immigration in politics right now.
Yes. We have to find a solution for this immigration problem. Weíve just kicked the can down the road. There are 12 million Hispanics here in the United States, if theyíre not invested in this community itís hard for them to raise their families and really take advantage of the American system. There has to be some kind of comprehensive immigration reform ó a lot of Republicans and Democrats believe we have to fix this problem.
We should be able to secure our borders ó not necessarily by a fence, I donít know the cost of that! ó and not just the southern borders but our northern borders, the waterways, the ocean. We all want to feel secure. But at the same time, this country is made of immigrants and to cut off a flow of immigrants wanting to build the American dream and build the American economy, itís not healthy for this country and for our well-being.
Is there still real interest in pursuing immigration reform?
Thereís a faction that doesnít want it, but most Republicans and Democrats think itís important to our economy that we have an immigration system that works.
How about locally, here in Virginia?
Itís a federal issue, itís not a state issue. But itís important in Virginia that we compete with other states like North Carolina and Maryland. Like what happened in Prince William, where Prince William lost a significant amount of population and a significant amount of the workforce because of their mistreatment of the immigrant community. That doesnít help. Immigration brings lots of opportunities to a community. History shows us that weíre fearful of immigrants because theyíre fearful that immigrants will take their jobs or will not contribute to the economy. Thatís not the facts. Immigrants are contributing. To take advantage of this a lot of time ó thatís what the Chamber does ó how can you build relationships in this community? The Hispanic population in the United States is larger than the populations of Canada and all of Central America combined. We spend over $1.2 trillion a year. These are opportunities for businesses to capitalize on.
Then thereís the international side. The United States targeting Latin America and other areas of the world ó 90 percent of the economic growth in the world will be taking place outside the United States. These are opportunities that a lot of times weíre fearful. But weíve got to become more savvy entrepreneurs around the world. Learning to speak more than one language is a competitive advantage, understanding other cultures is a competitive advantage. Some people are intimidated by that, but because of the reality of the world we live and in technology itís not the same as it was 50 years ago. When my parents came here from Mexico, there was no other option. There was no one to help my father. One specific person I remember very well helped my father ó but there was no organization like this one to help them become Americans, to help them understand the American system, the teach them English, to help them integrate into the American system. This organization is important to help people, help them build their new home. It took my parents a decade or several decades. Now it can happen much quicker.
The striking thing about this election is that interest in the topic of immigration is unusually high.
I had several meetings with (then-U.S. representative and Republican) Eric Cantor ó the day of his (2014) election I was at a meeting with Hispanic leaders and talking about immigration. I think if he hadnít lost (in the primary, to David Brat) ó and I donít think he lost because of immigration, thereís other things that he lost for ó he was interested in working to solve this. Republican leaders are very interested in some kind of immigration reform. I had the opportunity to meet with Donald Trump when he was in Richmond a month or two before he announced. He said those words about how Mexicans are, and I was just taken aback by that. I think heís a very accomplished person, but that rhetoric is ó you can stand for principles but that is a very big turn-off. Itís offensive.
When he said that ó because Iíd met him and talked with him earlier ó I went to his person and I said, ďIf heís really serious about being president heíll have to change his tone.Ē But what do I know? (Laughs.)
There seems to be a race among Republicans to see who can be the most dismissive of immigrants. And then when it comes to the general election theyíll presumably change their tone.
I think thatís what happened with Mitt Romney (in 2012). He tried to appease the right wing, and then he couldnít come back in the general election and go back on that. I think it really hurt him. If he didnít go to the right so much in the primaries, I think he could have won the general election.
Itís interesting that Trump said that about Mexicans to you before he even announced. Heís certainly saying it now and he seems to be being rewarded for it. Heís in the lead, and now some other candidates are taking the same tack. But a lot of commentators are saying you cannot win a general election if you alienate that many people.
Itís going to be very hard. It alienates a lot of people. I think people are drawn to Trump because heís not the typical politician. Thereís some kind of confidence level that he can turn America around and make it great. But at the same time, he could do just as well and not have that rhetoric. It just ó itís hard to win the general election when youíre that ... Iíve given advice to many that you can stand for your values. Eric Cantor for one. Eric was very anti-immigrant, but he came around. He changed.
Or Gov. Bob McDonnell.
I know Bob McDonnell very well. He was very open. If you were going to criticize, he would compliment he would say, ďI come from immigrants. I admire immigrants, hard workers. But weíre a land of laws and have a system of laws.Ē And you can understand that. But just to say things that are antagonizing, I donít think it helps.
Weíre not a political organization. Thereís lots of Hispanic Republicans and lots of Hispanic Democrats. No party should take them for granted. But with someone like Donald Trump, the rhetoric is very bad.
And letís be reasonable, thereís no way to take 12 million people out of the country. They live here, they have communities and ties. But we should be looking at the real security issues ó ISIS and terrorism.
These folks in immigrant communities, all they want is to work hard and provide their families with the American dream. For a long time there was a blinking yellow light at the border and everyone looked the other way, because frankly we needed these workers. Having a supply of workers to fill jobs that many Americans donít want to do keeps us competitive in the world.
We just need to have a better immigration system and policy. We need talents, we need investments, and a lot of that comes from immigrants. Iíve read that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Thereís a middle ground that some people are proposing ó a guest-worker type program.
Lots of people who are immigrants just want to work, get a driverís license, provide for their families ó thatís all they want. Some people, citizenship might be secondary, they just want to work and provide for their families. ... For those people, a worker program is what they should have. Most people want to stay in their country but they want to feed their families first.
One of the reasons weíre in this situation is because the work visas, in one day theyíre gone. Itís a very, very low amount. So where does this workforce come to man our economy? We have to have someone.
A lot of the problem is because of unions and legislators who donít support a good immigration system, one where we can keep our workforce to supplement our existing one and keep our factories going so we donít have to ship our jobs overseas to China.
In other countries with guest workers ó in Europe and the Middle East, for example ó there seem to be a lot of tensions between citizens and guest workers. Iíve read some reports of workers being taken severe advantage of, mistreated, because they have secondary legal status.
You can solve those kinds of problems. Those are things you can manage. But businesses want to do the right thing. For the most part, people want to do the right thing. But have to make it simpler to do the right thing, and thatís where we need our legislators to put a system in place that will keep us building our economy for the next 100 years.
How are people you know reacting to the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the primaries?
People are worried about it. If youíre Hispanic and you hear rhetoric like that ó these are good people. These are hard workers, people who are just trying to do the right thing and provide for their families, or their families are here and they canít go back. If we could address this and take the politics out of it, itís just going to make the United States a stronger nation.