This population boom has been accompanied by sustained economic growth. Even in the midst of the recession, Florida's unemployment rate remained noticeably lower than both the national average and our neighboring states. 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 more than 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.
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 those of 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 struggle.
As a result, I can completely empathize with those who desire to come to our country and achieve the American dream. 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 chairman and CEO of Rubicon Enterprises, which is based in Florida and operates restaurants, including Friday's and Marlow's Tavern.