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Sunday Conversation: Roberto Torres talks immigration

Roberto Torres receives his American Dream award from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Aug. 15.
Roberto Torres receives his American Dream award from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Aug. 15.
Published Aug. 20, 2017

YBOR CITY

Roberto Torres stands as one of the city's most impressive rising entrepreneurs. The owner of Blind Tiger Cafes, Black & Denim clothing company and CoWork Ybor has expanded his reach with locations at Tampa International Airport and The Morrison, a new mixed use development in the SoHo District. Torres, however, remains grounded to his immigrant roots. In fact, he grew emotional Tuesday when U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, recognized him and four other citizens with "American Dream Awards."

The Panamanian native recently reached out to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper, not to discuss his business success or his recognition but his growing concerns about President Donald Trump's changing immigration policies and how some in this nation choose to treat immigrants.

Things are going really well, yet you feel a kinship with other immigrants. You haven't forgotten that they're facing some unfair treatment. Why?

I live it every day with my personal relationships. I have a friend in Immokalee who grew up as a picker. He came to USF, got a master's degree, now he's about to get a Ph.D. and he went back to Immokalee to teach physical education. He told me there are students who are in his school on a Tuesday and then gone on Wednesday. They get on a bus and leave. The bus takes them right up to the Mexican border. People are really scared because they don't know what could happen.

So even though you've been a citizen for six years, do you feel threatened?

When the first iteration of (President Trump's) executive order on immigration came out, I thought, 'I'm not traveling anywhere.' That's how scary it is.

But people are going to say this is a nation of laws and we need people to obey the laws. And those who aren't obeying the laws should be deported. What's your response?

But we are following the laws when we come here. When somebody wants to work, they go through all the different hoops they have to go through to properly open a business. We see it with Venezuelan immigrants that are coming here. They just don't want to be provided services like a refugee. They want to be part of the solution. They want to be self-sufficient. They want to pay their fair share of taxes. They feel like they have a competitive work ethic and that they can come and contribute to this economy.

In Florida alone, 30 percent of small businesses are immigrant-owned businesses. That's 300,000 people that own businesses. They contribute almost $13 billion to the GDP for the state.

When people think about immigrants, they think stereotypically about a cleaning company, a mowing service or a restaurant. They're not thinking about tech, about law, about medicine. There are immigrants that come through a particular due process and they come and contribute something meaningful to our economy. We don't talk enough about those. They just want to hyper look into some of the cliches about immigration.

What are those cliches?

That there's going to be a taco truck on every corner. I am a personal fan of tacos and I think that would be a plus (laughs). Taking into consideration the makeup of our universities, it's really important because nine times out of 10, that's our litmus test of how desirable we are not only as a campus or as a state but as a country. If somebody makes a sacrifice of a lifetime to come and pay out of state tuition and go through all the things they have to go through to earn an American graduate education, and four years later we're not doing anything but telling them you're not wanted here? We're teaching you a set of skills, but we don't want you to put them in practice here?

It doesn't make sense to invest in those college students as a society and then send them back.

Absolutely. The tech industry is the one that's been inspired the most to raise its voice. I've been working with a group called Fwd.us, and they're advocating more for those tech initiatives and how affected the tech industry will be if there's a cap or a bottleneck or a restraint for immigrant personas not being able to participate in that industry.

What are the things we should do to advocate for immigrants?

Whenever we have the opportunity to dispel the notion that immigration is bad, we have to do it. How can we get more jobs, how can we get more meaningful jobs? Whenever the tide rises, it lifts all boats, and immigration is really good for the economy.

We have immigrants who are following the laws. We can be job creators but we're also part of the community and we're giving back.

I'm raising the issue of advocacy so the ones that are in the shadows, the nine to 11 million people who don't have a clear path to citizenship. We need to show them a path, and it may take you five to six years to get there, but if it's regardless of who is in the White House, once you show them a clear path or a plan, that's something they can sink their teeth into.

But right now, we have more immigrants worried about being deported than finding a path.

Absolutely. So what happens? They worry. They stop answering phone calls for basic services like police or health care. Those communities are not crime-free so those crimes get under-reported. So there can be entire towns that become no-man's lands because they don't want to raise any particular issue out of fear.

That infringes on somebody's basic human rights. If we believe this is a nation of laws, we also believe it's a nation of rights.

Of compassion.

Yes. People have an inherent right to clean air, to clean water, to shelter. If it's below 40 degrees, you're not going to sleep outside. To me, this is a 40 degree issue at all times. There are basic, human, inherent rights regardless of your immigration status that we need to take care of.

So in closing, I just want to circle back to the fact that despite all your success, you haven't turned your back on other immigrants.

I want to participate in this advocacy because the community has been there for me. I came from Panama as a 20 year old. I've lived in Tallahassee, Miami and Palm Beach. Tampa has been the first community to embrace me. I feel like I was born here.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4you.

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